By Larry Beane
There was a time (such as when the New Testament was still being written) when those who were not members of the Body of Christ were called "unbelievers." At some point in our recent past, this term became politically incorrect among the mandarins of the Church Growth Movement. And so instead we began to hear about the "unchurched." The emphasis shifted from being a commentary on the lack of faith of the non-Christian, emphasizing instead his lack of relationship to the church.
But now, in these more missional (less churchly) times, a new word is called for. And that new word is (as most politically-correct neologisms are) actually comprised of several words - in this case, a nice sacramental seven:
"Those who do not yet know Jesus."
This terminology is being used across denominational lines (a quick Google will show the cross-confessional nature of the expression), and when it was being vocalized (and quite often) at my district's recent convention, there was a particular emphasis placed on the word "yet." It was as though there was a memo that went out at corporate explaining the proper way to articulate and emote the slogan, as there was also quite often an audible and emphatic wavering of the voice to register the requisite amount of emotion: "Tho-o-o-se who do not YET (brief pause) kno-o-ow Jeeeee-sus."
We are in the deep South after all.
It is an interesting turn of phrase. For unlike the term "unbeliever" - it does not address state of faith of the person to which it refers. And unlike "unchurched" it doesn't focus on the relationship of the person to the Bride of Christ. Instead, the verb used is "to know." And it is a word that requires some context. In Scripture, to "know" a person might mean to have a sexual relationship with him. To "know" a person may indicate acquaintance, to be aware that he exists, or to have some kind of relationship with him (whether good or bad). To "know" also points us toward rationality. "Knowing" (rationality) is certainly a different category than "believing" (faith).
But here the emphasis is on "yet."
The expression speaks of Christianity as a state of knowing Jesus, and of the unbeliever as simply being in a state of temporary ignorance. "Those who do not yet know Jesus" are people who are ignorant of Jesus, but presumably, when we do our job and teach them about Jesus, they will certainly become Christians (or more missionally-correct: "Jesus-followers") right along with us. It is as though all we need to do is tell them and they will convert, teach them, and they will join, relieve them of their ignorance, and they will drop their current religions (whether they are Wicca or work) to become disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a variation on the line from Field of Dreams: "If you build it..."
But what about unbelievers who do know Jesus but have rejected him? The expression "those who do not yet know Jesus" makes no provision for those who know Christ but have no desire to submit to Him. With such people, the "yet" is not just incorrect, it's arrogant. One of the reasons cited by our culture for its hatred of Christianity is its supposed arrogance. Usually, the allegation is based on a caricature or distortion of the church - or at very least, based on representations of Christianity that are unflattering. However, I have to say, in this case, the charge is true. The term "those who do not yet know Jesus" is terribly arrogant. Can you imagine if Muslims referred to us as "those who do not yet know Mohammed"? The presumption would be that the only reason we would not be Muslims is our ignorance of their religion's founder. And if they only give us the right information, the right sales job, the right education, the right program script - we would be Allah-followers.
I think this is a terribly disrespectful and condescending way to speak about unbelievers. For very few unbelievers are truly ignorant of Jesus. Most people have heard something about Jesus, at very least. Most people have some contact with Christians of some form. Even Atheists typically have December 25 as a day off work, and it would be hard indeed to find a Jew or Muslim who is ignorant that a lot of people living in his community worship a Jew named Jesus and consider Him to be God. There are many unbelievers who are quite learned in Scripture and church history. The reason they are unbelievers has nothing to do with ignorance.
There is also a thread of Arminianism running through the term. For it connects one's state of being a Christian (i.e. one who holds the catholic faith of the Triune God and the Divine Incarnation of Jesus) to "knowing" (which is rational) - and then typically makes it the job of Christians - clergy and lay alike - to "tell" the one "who does not yet know Jesus" about Jesus. Thus confessing the faith becomes a kind of sales-job ("get the message out" or as said in our more missionally-correct times, we need to "tell our story"). We just need to get out there and close the deal. If the customers only knew how great our vacuum cleaners were, they would be buying them. "Hit the bricks, pal!" "Always be closing!"
This was the problem with the late Ablaze! program that was jammed down the throats of LCMS Lutherans a few years ago. It treated confessing the faith as a quantifiable business transaction that was subject to being logged and counted toward a corporate sales goal. The program (shockingly) explicitly did not include Holy Baptism as a so-called "critical event" to be logged. And this program was sold as a means to start thousands of new LCMS churches in the U.S. and around the world. Based on these projections, church workers (including pastors) were aggressively recruited for the tsunami of new churches that would be built ("if you build it...") through this salesmanship. Instead, we're seeing record numbers of seminary candidates stranded on Call Night. We now have a glut of pastors and lay church workers. Synodical policy goals grew out of rosy estimates based on Ablaze! ("if you build it..."). It's hard enough to project sales of products (in spite of focus groups and market research), let alone to turn the Holy Spirit's ministry into something to be carved up on a PowerPoint pie graph and subjected to number crunching on a whiteboard at Corporate.
And now even though Ablaze! was allowed to go quietly into the night, our bureaucrats and bean counters are scouring the neo-Evangelical world looking for the Next Great Evangelism Program - without regard to the doctrine of election, to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, the cross, and without reference to Holy Baptism as the means by which the Second Birth happens. The new hype centers around the idea of "missional communities" - which for some reason, typically involves coffee. I cannot help wondering if "Blake" (Alec Baldwin) from Glengarry Glen Ross will one day be invited to speak to a "Missional Summit" (which is what church conferences seem to be called in our brave missional world) railing at us that "coffee is for closers only!"
At some point we are going to have to disavow ourselves of the sales model and come to grips with our Lord's metaphor that the Kingdom is a Narrow Path that few find. Those on the Broad Road are seldom there because they are ignorant of Jesus. It is a good and fitting thing to confess the faith, to give an answer for the reason of the hope within us, to articulate what the Christian faith is and who our Lord Jesus is - speaking the truth in love. But we should not be so arrogant as to think that if we only teach people the right things, serve the right coffee, wear the right clothes, use the right buzzwords ("if you build it..."), and implement the right program or gimmick, unbelievers will become members of the Church.
Maybe there is an unintended consequence of the arrogance of the expression "those who do not yet know Jesus" (as well-intentioned as it is). And maybe that consequence is a rejection of Jesus because of the arrogance of His followers. And maybe the proper way to speak to such people is humility in our clear confession instead of fuzzy buzzwords, slick programs, and marketing schemes based on the presumption of the ignorance of the unbeliever.
We are called to be confessors of the faith, not closers of the deal.
|"I'm here from downtown.... And I'm here on a mission of mercy."