Listening to Paul Weston talking about conversations with people in the 21C.
Every year he goes out with theological college students and sends them out class by class to ask people on the street questions.
Normally they start with something like: Do you know what it is to pray?
Around 70% say yes.
Sometimes then ask: Do you mind me asking ‘Who do you pray to?’
It’s not uncommon to have a response like: yes, I’m praying to my Grandmother!
[That registered with me as I was having a conversation exactly like that this morning in Chiswick: A friend was happily telling me how his family always call out to their (now deceased) grandmother to ‘say one for them to St Anthony’ whenever they have lost something! Often it then turns up. When she was alive she was very devout and they assumed that her prayers would be more powerful than theirs for that reason].
When someone says: I’m an atheist I’ve learnt to be very sceptical about what that claims mean. Paul Weston
Paul is particularly interesting on the subject of atheism: He states: When someone says: ‘I’m an atheist’ I’ve learnt to be very sceptical about what that claims mean. My follow on question is: ‘Does that mean that outside of yourself (as a material collection of molecules) there is no meaning attached to who you are or what you do?’ Often the response is something like: no, I believe there is probably a spirit world out there… Paul’s gentle response: you’re not really an atheist then are you…
If secular space means there is ‘no consciousness of the other’ that is not really where we are at now. It’s very rarely that people think that this is all there is to life (except among the over 60s where a small minority hold to that).
But despite that while people get the ‘realm of the spiritual’ there is no easy link to attach that to anything Bible or church. When asked where would you go to further your quest for the spiritual the response ‘I would go to church’ is very rare. It is not difficult to open up the space where people are talking about spiritual matters, but how do you connect that to the movement of Jesus known as the church?
Not long ago in sharing the Christian faith we simply brought together things that people knew of Christian story. Hanging them together helped people make sense of their life using terms that they were familiar with (gaining peace, forgiveness eternity etc). But now there is an incredible lack of knowledge about gospel stories, the person/teaching of Jesus and the claims of Christianity.
What makes Jesus the evangelist that he was?
- he doesn’t systematise his message – it’s personal, adapted, unpacked differently. Relates to their context, questions.
- he asks lots of questions. Per gospel he asks more than 250 questions: [94 (Mt) 59 (Mk) 82 (Lk) 49 (Jn)]. He opens up a space where people can think and reevaluate themselves [nb he only directly answers 3 questions in all of the Gospels].
- Then rehangs the question in the light of the coming Kingdom of God
What would it mean to employ an ‘inside out’ approach to the Gospel?
After the resurrection in John’s gospel we get some guidance on how to make Jesus present with people when he is no longer physically there. The answer, Paul Weston says, is as you retell the stories of the gospel he will presence himself in them.
Bringing the appropriate story of Jesus into the space you have opened up is the key:
[This really registers in my own story telling: So often told the story of the prodigal son to muslims and seen radical change and seen impact].
But Paul takes this further: “As I retell the story the Spirit is at work in me and in the conversation partner… God works in us both… I do not own the story and bring it into the context, I share my journey and learn from them and their response. I am praying that God leads me to the right Jesus story to share with them. As I share it, and we interact together, it gains new meaning for me as well as for them.”
He continues, “My role is to lean into the spirit of Jesus in that conversation. I’m not trying to share a system, but as I share the stories Jesus himself presences himself through the story… It’s an imaginative leap, letting a gospel story speak into lives of the person we’re chatting with.”
It’s not a million miles away from Scott McNamara’s Jesus at the Door methodology. He shows people a picture of Jesus knocking on the door to the heart and asks them if he can ask them a question. The opening question is ‘do you ever pray’ and then the patter asks them to respond to the picture and where they see themselves in the story. His approach is far more intentional on outcomes he’s trying to achieve and it ends up with a way to help people move on further in their specific response to Jesus. Amazingly we’ve seen the most surprising people run through this with people all over the UK and find that they’re quite happy to takes the steps he outlines. As Scott puts it ‘we share, he shakes [the fruit off the tree]’.
Scott’s methodology requires the deliberate response, but for those for whom this feels too prescriptive/challenging/formulaic, it’s fascinating to think again on Jesus’ questioning style through the Paul Weston lens. It doesn’t take too much boldness to ask someone what they think, with no agenda, to listen well, and pray that God brings a bible story to mind that will further the conversation a little. That could bring the historic person of Jesus into colour for someone who may know very, very little about him, or it could be a fascinating conversation, and intriguing challenge to our own comfortable thinking, and a moment where both we and they learn something we didn’t know about life, God or ourself…
This feels like the kind of conversation Jesus would have. A conversation worth having.
A lot of energy in church life goes into wonderful Kingdom building social projects, but it’s easy for these reflective questions to be absent…
Angus Ritchie, quoting Mark Russell, says it’s arrogant for Christians to do social action and not explain why we are doing it. Otherwise it’s in danger of saying ‘we’ve found this great motivation for our lives, but don’t worry about it! That’s for us – not for you’.
We’re called not to be predatory but porous. Have to get away from ‘functional atheism’ in Christian social action: need to expect God to be at work doing something in people’s lives.