William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling novel The Shack; C. Baxter Kruger earned a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. Together, they discuss the impact of the Trinity on evangelism, and our participation in the message of Jesus.

Edited transcript

JMF: This time we want to talk about something a little bit different. Evangelism is the big word in Western Christianity. Everything revolves around evangelism and what are you doing to share the gospel. It’s like the eleventh commandment in the Old Testament and it’s the…

WPY: It’s the fundraising arm of religious Christianity.

CBK: I grew up in the Presbyterian church. I didn’t know what evangelism was until I went to seminary.

JMF: We want to share the gospel, but how is that done? How does Trinitarian theology affect evangelism? What are the implications? What is the impact? How are we to see evangelism and think about it? Let’s talk about that.

WPY: It’s a great question. Go ahead, Baxter.

CBK: You start off with the Father, Son, and Spirit—you have relationship, and they love one another in complete other-oneness. Their dream for us is to draw us into their relationship so that it can become as much ours as it is theirs. So the message of the gospel, the good news, is that you’re included. That’s what we’re supposed to share with people. The best way to share it with them is to let the Father, Son, and Spirit share it with us, which is as persons in relationship. So in terms of having a program where we’re trying to knock on doors or we’re doing different things, to me it’s about…

This city here [Los Angeles] is about 20 million people who are included in the life of Jesus. They probably have not much of a clue about that. The way we do that is one person at a time in relationship, getting to know people, inviting them over, talking with them. Underneath that is a freeing aspect for a normal Christian person: the more they grow in the knowledge and understanding and intimacy that we’re loved and that we’re cared for, then the more free and natural it is to share. You have more confidence because this is good – “this has really helped my life. I want you to see this. How can I come alongside and share this with you?” Sometimes it’s information, sometimes it may just be befriending them.

WPY: Don’t you think a lot of times evangelism is a segment of spirituality in terms of how it’s presented? The idea of evangelism is to get somebody from point A to point somewhere else.

CBK: From outside to inside.

WPY: From the outside to the inside, across the line, across the bridge, whatever. That’s not what you’re talking about at all.

CBK: Jesus has crossed the line and crossed the bridge and found the human race, and that’s what true. He’s called us as Christians to go and share that with the world so they can know that they’re included, too. Then we can walk together and begin to figure out what this life means. How do we live this way? How do we participate in the Trinitarian life?

At this point in history, I think the most important part in the discussion of evangelism is not the method, but the message. The message that I’m hearing [from others] is that there’s this huge chasm between God and us, and that there’s all these different ways that we can get across over to God, and once we get across that big chasm (in Jesus by faith or penitence, maybe by baptism or by sacraments), there are all these different things we’ve got to do. Once we cross that, then we’re loved, then we’re accepted, then we’re reconciled, then we’re saved, then we’re sanctified, then I’ll be adopted.

I’m saying the message to be proclaimed is that yes, there is a huge chasm. Adam and Eve, in their disobedience, plunged into the darkness, there was a huge chasm. But then there’s this thing called the Incarnation, where the Father and Son came across the chasm to find us in the far country, put us on his shoulders, and brought us back to his Father. That’s when we were loved and saved and reconciled. But we’re still in the dark and have no clue as to who we are, living out of our darkness, and it’s fear, and insecurity, and pain, and meaninglessness.

We belong to the Father, Son, and Spirit. I package it this way sometimes just to make the point very stark in contrast to what I have heard all my life on radio and television. The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his life. He has made us part of his world, part of his relationship with the Father, the Holy Spirit, and his relationship with all creation. That’s the good news.

We’ve got to get the message worked out, and I think the Holy Spirit is doing that right now. The last 30 years it’s been like turning up the heat on this, and it’s beautiful. People are beginning to wrestle with it. “You’re telling me that that guy sitting on the park bench is included?” That’s exactly what I’m telling you. He wouldn’t have been able to come inside of God’s creation apart from being included. Does he know that? Heck no, he doesn’t know it, and because he doesn’t know, he’s scared to death. He doesn’t know where his next meal is going to come from. He doesn’t know what to do with his life, he’s so precarious. He’s frozen in fear.

When we see that, we can begin to feel with him who he is because of who Jesus is. That may mean befriending him. It may mean giving him a place to live, it may mean helping him out, or it may just mean sharing one word with him in that particular moment. I don’t want to formulate the thing so that we’ve got this one package where we more or less go and puke on everybody with it whether they want to hear it or not; it’s much more relational.

WPY: You’re saying that there’s no part of life that is not evangelism in that sense. We embody the good news, because when we are participating in the truth and the love and the grace that we already have come to know, even though we’re not fully there yet, we’re in process ourselves. Love becomes the centerpiece of this – the way that we love one another and the way that we love others, the way we love our enemies.

CBK: The sacred-secular dichotomy has to be dismantled in this, too, because if you throw your lot in 100 percent with the Father, Son, and Spirit and you surrender wholly to them, they’re going to do a whole lot more for you than make you simply an evangelist. You’re going to be a good human being. You’re going to be a bass fisherman, and maybe you make lures. You’re going to be into everything that they’re into, and they’re into everything in this cosmos.

The sacred-secular dichotomy goes away, so that the more we throw ourselves in with the Father, Son, and Spirit, the more their light begins to flow through us in an infinite variety of ways, and it may well be through joining a lure-making association that you meet three or four guys and you end up having a beer with them and talking, and they start sharing their lives with you right there. You begin to talk to them about what your experience has been and what’s given you hope, and why you enjoy things like fishing. Their lives may begin to be revolutionized simply by discussion about fishing that’s not rooted in the sacred- secular dichotomy, and not rooted in the “over God” who has got us afraid and trying to make us religious androids.

JMF: I’ve seen these kits where you’ll go through the videotape and the lessons and all about relational evangelism, and it talks about how to go out and make friends with people. From the outset, the only reason you’re making friends with these people when you’ve targeted them is because they need the gospel, so I’m going to befriend them so that I can keep working with them until the right point comes where I can present the gospel. To me that’s artificial – at least this is how it strikes me. It’s an artificial friendship, that you’re making only because you think I need to get the gospel to them, therefore I’ll make friends with them in order to get the opportunity to give them the gospel.

CBK: “Let’s fake the relationship so I can maybe get Jesus to do something.”

JMF: Exactly.

WPY: How many of us have been involved with somebody inviting us over to their house so that they can really tell us what the agenda is?

JMF: Exactly.

CBK: It’s not fundraising this time – it’s evangelism this time.

JMF: You’re a project. It’s like you’re an insurance salesman. In order to survive and make enough money to get by, you always have to think of everybody as a potential sale. You always have that in the back of your mind.

CBK: Once you sell the insurance to them, that’s the end of it. [But] the goal of evangelism is discipleship and inclusion in the community.

JMF: If people matter, if they are real and they matter, and having right relationships is the goal of life, then, as you were saying, Paul, everything is evangelism in that sense.

WPY: Absolutely.

JMF: Our very definition of evangelism…the end is the relationship. It’s okay to have friends for the sake of friendships. It’s okay to be friendly and be friends, because people matter. They’re worth being friends with.

WPY: For their sake.

JMF: Peter said, “Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that lies within you.”

CBK: That’s when somebody asks you about the hope that lies in you.

JMF: Exactly. Live such a life so that people might even ask…

CBK: How often does that happen?

JMF: Do we have to make every friendship for the sake of…as though this person is going to go to hell if we don’t get them saved? We’ve got to find a sneaky way to get the gospel. Can we trust God to be who he is for them and enjoy them as a person without having this constant thing in the back of my mind… “when can I work in the gospel? How am I going to work in…” Aren’t we being Christ to them in the friendship itself?

CBK: That is the point. We are train stops in people’s lives. With family, the train stops more often than not. We’re free to love them and to be there for them. Jesus is the evangelist, and the Holy Spirit is the redeeming genius. We’re called into what they are doing. They are the ones that are burdened for the whole world to come to see the truth. Not us. They’re using us to be part of that process in people’s lives. We get to be free to love a person for their sake.

I don’t need to have a fully worked out agenda for the man on the park bench. I’m free to care for him in this moment. If it goes somewhere else, then I’ll follow and see where it goes. But it’s a good thing to care for someone…so, okay, this man needs food. That’s fantastic! Help him get food. It may be that the Lord wants me to do something a little bit more. I don’t know! But the gift itself is for him. It’s for his blessing, his benefit. The Holy Spirit can interpret that.

JMF: As we live out of other-centeredness, outside of ourselves (which we do maybe two or three seconds every day). During those two or three seconds when we’re thinking in a non-self-centered way and Christ is living in us, isn’t that the way we are? In other words, it’s natural to care about somebody and to help where you can and be present for someone in their need as we’re able.

WPY: Because of our union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are by nature lovers of people. I think that’s what is true about us. We just don’t know it. And as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. If you think you’re not, then you’re going to function like you’re not.

A lot of times our struggle with the methodologies of evangelism is because they’re not natural to our nature, which is to love. How many classes did you take on being a father and loving your child, and making sure that the methodology was right? It’s not that we don’t get help along the way, but there is something that that child brings to us by virtue of who we are now. I am a father, they are my child. I do grow in that, but there’s not a methodology about it that makes me more valuable to that son or daughter.

I love the idea that there is a God who has climbed into our inabilities and joined us in that with all of their ability to be present, to be kind. You look at the fruit of the Spirit; it’s a description of God. It’s not commodities that God has that he dispenses when you ask for them or need them. This is God. This is the fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit is of the same nature and character as the Father and the Son – kindness, gentleness, you know? When have those things been a part of a methodology of evangelism?

CBK: Everybody wants to be known, and everybody wants to be cared for. When you know and care for someone, you’re going to have conversations with them. When Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf coast and just ripped our coast completely apart, we were all watching on TV in Jackson until our electricity went off. I remember driving to the Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi… I don’t know what I was doing, but I was driving by the Coliseum the day before Katrina hit. This is some 180 miles from the coast. There were 200 cherry picker trucks lined up in the parking lot from all over the country. People had taken their vacation time, the companies were donating the trucks, they were lined up two days before Katrina hit. The minute the storm was over, those guys were going straight down Route 49 to our coast.

I was having a conversation during that same period about someone who was asking me what I thought about the emerging church. That was the same thing to me, when you said “what about evangelism.” I want to know, where does the origin for that kind of concern and that kind of camaraderie brotherhood come from? That’s not evil. That’s not coming from the devil. There are some people who drove as far as Oregon and some probably from Canada. Now our guys have done the same thing for them – it’s part of a tradition to help each other…

So you want to talk about evangelism, you want to talk about the emerging church? The first thing we need to do is to begin to identify the Jesus who is already everywhere anyway and already at work. Because I want to talk to those men, and I want to say thank you, as a son of Mississippi, thank you for taking your vacation time, thank your families for helping us out. Then I want to say to them, that’s beautiful, that’s sacrificial, that’s other-centered. That sounds just like the Father, Son, and Spirit.

I want to approach those guys in that honor and dignity. That opens up an entirely new world as opposed to “Okay, we’ve got 200 guys, they’re not going to be in Mississippi again, let’s go blitzkrieg and make sure that they pray a prayer so that they can get out of where they are into Jesus, and at least now they’re saved when they go home.” Who’s the joke on there? Who is blind there? What is really happening? We’ve got all these discussions about the emerging church, but if that’s not the emerging church, I don’t want to be a part of one.

WPY: You end up treating people like targets. You lose the value of their humanity.

JMF: Exactly.

WPY: How many funeral services have you been to – and unfortunately I’ve been to one recently for a young man who was my youngest son’s best friend, who was killed in a dirt bike accident just a couple weeks ago and who was a member of our family. We grieve him deeply. But well-meaning brothers and sisters in our family conversation, they want to use that time to evangelize people because they know that people’s hearts are sensitive. I’m thinking because their hearts are sensitive I want to treat them with a greater degree of respect and kindness than they’ve ever known. To turn this event into a marketing opportunity, into a commercial, I think is devastating and short-sighted.

Let’s enter into each other’s pain and sorrow. The young people, the generation that’s coming up, that was in the middle of this loss, they showed up in a way that a lot of the adults didn’t know how to, because they knew about the value of being in the middle of it with each other. That became why people would ask the question, “How come this is different? What is this about the celebration of someone’s life? What is this hope that is not just so bent by grief?”

Then it becomes a part of the expression of our lives together, because we actually value those people because we know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all over them to begin with, and values them. Evangelism is no longer a methodology or a part of our spirituality or anything like that. It becomes an expression. We get to treat people like we know they matter, because of the way we’ve been treated because we found out we mattered. Tell the story of the seminary student and the farmer. I think that has total application to the conversation at this point.

CBK: This happened to me years ago. I was going to speak somewhere in the Midwest. I remember that it was really, really flat. A seminary student picked me up at the airport, and we get into the car, and we go into the university, and there are farmers everywhere. I said, “What are you going to do, are you a junior or a senior?”

He said, “I’m a senior.”

I said, “What are you going to do when you graduate?”

He says, “I’m going to go to seminary.”

So I said, “Are you going to be a missionary or a pastor?”

He said, “No, not a missionary, I’ll probably be a pastor.”

Just about that time a huge John Deere tractor made a turn in the field right by the road and went back out. I said, “Well, you see this man on the tractor. Have you ever thought about how Jesus relates to him in his farming? He spends 60 or 70 hours a week on the tractor, so the whole family network is all about farming.”

He said, “I never thought about that.” I will never forget the look on his face, because he looked at me like I had that third eye going, “Where did you come from? What kind of question is that?”

I said, “This is an important question. More than likely you’re going to have a whole church full of farmers and their families who give their entire lives to farming. So the important question is how does Jesus relate to the farmer?”

He said, “I just don’t know, I never thought about it.”

I said, “When you get home tonight and you get ready to eat your supper, what do you do before you take your first bite?”

He said, “I thank the Lord for the food.”

I said, “Why are you thanking the Lord for the food that the farmer grew?”

He said, “You’re not saying I’m not supposed to thank the Lord?”

I said, “No, thank the Lord. What I’m trying to help you see is that your prayer already knows how Jesus relates to the farmer; you just don’t have a theology that will allow you to see that your prayer already knows.”

He says, “I think I’m getting it…”

I said, “In thanking God for the farmer, thanking God for the food that the farmer grew, you’re saying the farmer is participating in a provision that’s coming from the Father, Son, and Spirit to you. You are recognizing in your prayer that that man is included as a participant. But you don’t have a theology that will allow you to approach him in that way.”

Now to take that story and extend it to this conversation, he’s going to go knock on his door and pretend that he’s outside and trying to get him to jump through the hoops to get inside. Once he gets inside, because of the sacred-secular dichotomy, he’s going to try to get him to be less of a farmer and more of a Christian who is doing these things over in the “sacred” world.

No wonder nobody wants to be in the middle of that. We don’t even see who the farmer really is. We can’t treat him with the proper dignity or his family. If we did, he’d probably knock the door down to come learn more about this, because nobody else is telling me a thing about that. Everybody else is treating me like I’m just a farmer. These are huge questions beyond that practical level. When we see who people really are and whose lives they’ve been included in and what life is coming out of them, or trying to, we begin to relate to them in that and with the light of Jesus. People want to know about that. The farmer wants to know.

I talk to Marines. I’ve had a chance to speak to Marines at one of the bases in the United States. We had a long discussion, and I said to them, “Before we get into a long discussion about this, I want to say one thing to you. You are concerned to protect, and you have a passion in your soul to protect and to create space for freedom for life. That comes from the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m talking about the burden that you bear in your soul. What motivates you to work and to protect and to brave the seas and go into situations where you’re being moved by a love for freedom and life? I want you to know: that has its origin in the Father, Son, and Spirit.”

I’m sitting in the room with the Marines, telling the story, and they’re all crying. Not all of them, most of them (big guys), because they know I’ve spoken to what’s motivating their being. Now I’m trying to help them see who that is. You don’t think they want to be in the conversation? That Sunday night they bring their wives and little boys to the church to have a conversation.

WPY: How different is that from me having a methodology of evangelism that’s fundamentally, for a lot of us, motivated by  guilt, fear that we’re not going to be doing something [i.e., evangelism] that God required of us, guilt that we’d end up with somebody’s blood on our hands because we didn’t [evangelize], and then we treat everybody like a target – not because they’re human beings who matter, but because we’re still trying to deal with our criteria of what it means to be successful spiritually, and it’s motivated by all the wrong things.

JMF: You can take that and make it artificial, if you turn it into a “here’s what you say.” It needs to be real in order for it to…

CBK: This is where it forces us to be real, because what we’re really doing in evangelism is we’re saying, hey, come walk with us. We believe Jesus is leading us in life, so come walk with us and do this with us. We don’t have it all worked out. It is what we do, see? Come walk with us.

If that’s not what we’re saying in the pulpit, preaching, teaching – evangelism is “come walk with us” – what are we saying? Come jump through a hoop and get through something? We’re trying to walk with Jesus and understand him, broken as we are and blind as we are. We’re trying to participate in that life. Come join us, come walk with us. We see it in you. We want to help, we want to encourage you. We’re going to encourage you in broken ways. Just walk with us.

That’s what Jesus says: “Come, walk with me. Follow me.” The disciples and John the Baptist come up behind him and say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He turns and says, “You want to know where I’m dwelling?” (That’s the word used, I don’t know why they translate “staying.”) Jesus says, “You want to know where I’m staying? Where I dwell? Walk with me and you will see.”

Evangelism, in its true sense, is nothing more than an invitation to come share life. This is it, come share life with us. Walk together. That is so much different, it is so very different than approaching a person [with the attitude of] “you are outside; I have to manipulate you to get you to jump through the hoops.” (I was taught they were going to change in two years, but I don’t know that right now.) You’ve got to say it this way and jump through these hoops. I’ve got to figure out a way to get you to do that when you don’t want to do that, and I don’t even really want to do it, because I know you and we play golf together. But now I’ve got to treat you like we’re not friends and I’ve got to get you to do this…

It’s very artificial. But it comes down to, are we inviting people to walk with us in our lives?

WPY: The struggle that’s involved is conversation, period. As soon as you start to talk about evangelism, you almost always have to go to methodology. As soon as you do that, it’s no longer dynamic and organic and relational. It’s no longer me in the midst of my world loving the people who are in it and allowing that love to generate whatever the conversations are. For a lot of believers, they don’t even know who they are here. Therefore, having a methodology becomes the in-between step, to thinking that the methodology defines what a believer is supposed to do, right? Until they know that they’re loved, this is not going to be a dynamic and organic and relational thing, either. It’s like saying, well, now our new method of evangelism is to love somebody.

JMF: Exactly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this great quote where he said, “Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross. He waited until one of them turned to him.”

CBK: He knew that he was going to meet them on the other side in just a few minutes.

JMF: Meet both of them in just a few minutes.

CBK: They’re both going to die. What’s the other thief going to meet on the other side?

JMF: It’s a lesson for us.

CBK: I’ve got several stories. I wish we had time to tell, maybe another time, but one I was in, I think I was in Kona… Some of the people I was teaching had done an evangelism class or something like that. The guy that was teaching, if I remember correctly, was from California, maybe Southern California. He had told them, “Here’s what I want you to do.” Or she had, “I want you to get together in groups of three and I want you to pray and ask the Lord, ‘What do you want us to do?’ Just pray. Lord, show us.” If he doesn’t say anything, just get back together and pray. There’s no pressure, do whatever.

In this one story that I heard, they got together and prayed, and they said one of them saw a girl standing behind a counter with a blue shirt on, another one said her name was Sarah, and that was about it. The other one said something about finances, the finances are going to be okay. That’s all they knew. They didn’t even know where she was or anything. So they decided to go for a coffee down in the town, and they were walking around in the shops or whatever and there’s a girl standing behind the counter with a blue shirt on with her nametag of Sarah.

They’re like, wow…they were tripped out a little bit. (I’m sure I’m getting some of this story wrong, because it’s been awhile, but the heart of it was there.) They walked over, and they said, “Are you Sarah?” She said, “Yes.” They said, “We were praying for you this morning, and the Lord told us to tell you that your finances are going to be okay.” That’s all they said. I don’t even know what happened next.

But I know if that happened to me, I would want to know, okay, are you all going to be praying again tomorrow? I’ve got a whole checkbook here. That drew her into their shared life. That’s what evangelism is. It’s not making somebody jump through a hoop; it’s helping them be drawn into this life with us when we ourselves are struggling to live. That’s very much more relational and dynamic. It means it can have faces…it’s an infinite variety of ways it can happen in any given day. If we’re walking with Jesus and we’re saying we want to participate, then we’re just drawing people into that.

WPY: The greatest evangelist ever was Jesus. He says, “I don’t do anything but what I see the Father do,” and sometimes that means walking away and sometimes that means saying, “What do I have to do with you? I came for Israel.” Sometimes it means saying a word. It happens within the context of real life.

JMF: And the real life that comes to you…the people you cross paths with.

WPY: Absolutely. It is a part of our relationships. It’s like, “okay, so now we’ve got to come up with small groups of relationships in order to validate the idea of relationships, right?”

You know what? We’re in them. Just look around in your life. They’re all over. Love the people who are in your world. Allow the questions and everything to come up in the context of that. Know who you are inside of our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and express that life. Let the Holy Spirit enter this adventure and allow you to participate with what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are trying to do in their love for the people that you love because they care about the things you care about.

JMF: Well, thanks again for being here.

CBK: Good to be back, good to see you.

WPY: Always a pleasure.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 8:30 PM