For the last twenty years I have experimented with new ways of engaging people with the good news of Jesus. I've tried all kinds of things, bus ministry, house church, power evangelism, social justice outreach, healing meetings, kindness evangelism, street work, you name it, I've probably had a go. Sometimes it worked, others times it was a learning curve, or just wasn't the right time or place. Each time was a helpful lesson in building resilience and perseverance. Nothing is wasted.
I had the liberty of trying new things because I planted a church or launched a missional community specifically to try a new approach (like conversations on a couch). However, I have coached pioneers and evangelists in traditional church settings or in contexts where there are fixed mindsets and their number one discouragement is people who say "that's not how we do things around here." This disparaging remark seems to have the power to close down innovation and suck the life out of any new venture. I know many evangelists who give up because the system keeps blocking them.
This can happen anywhere, in any church because we all have our preferred way of doing things. This is a stronghold of the mind (2 Corinthians 10:4), and could be called a blindspot.
Our blind spots lie at the intersection of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. One way of understanding this is called The Johari Window, which was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham to help us become more self-aware.
Where can we see this at work in the early church? One of the best examples is in Acts 10. It is the story of Peter visiting the house of Cornelius. The book of Acts is basically a story of transition from an old covenant way of thinking to embracing the new. However it takes time to get there and there is a lot of resistance, even from the apostles.
Acts 10 happens seven years after the Holy Spirit is poured out on the day of Pentecost. Even though Jesus told the disciples to make disciples of the nations, commanding them to go to Judea, Samaria and the end of the earth, they are still in Jerusalem, seven years later, they have not moved beyond being a Jewish expression of Jesus followers. They are still going to the Temple every day, still following the regulations of the Law of Moses, and still keeping the good news within the Jewish community.
Why are they stuck in Jerusalem, why are they not sharing the good news with non-Jews? It is their tradition holding them back, they have a blind spot. They cannot see it is hindering their obedience to reaching beyond a narrow demographic.
In Acts 10:28 Peter tells the gentile household of Cornelius "“You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean."
Wow! Seven years after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who is meant to be for all. Even after Jesus told them to go and make disciples of the nations, Peter thinks he is being faithful to God by obeying the law, and not sharing the good news with gentiles. This is a blind spot caused by tradition. A tradition which in its rightful place is a good thing, but the old has gone and the new has come. Peter is just taking a while to catch up with the new reality.
This kind of stronghold in our thinking is common too many in the church today. We think our traditions are under threat by innovation or changing the wineskin, or reaching out to people who are not like us. Sometimes it is motivated by fear, sometime by legalism, or in Peter's case, it is a blind spot, it is not malicious but it is restricting the power and spread of the gospel.
Peter has to receive a vision from God to let him see his blindspot. Even then he resists but finally agrees to go to Cornelius. When Peter returns to Jerusalem he has to explain his behaviour to the other disciples, showing that they too had a blind spot in this area. They were all working it out.
What does this mean for us today? It means accepting we all have blind spots. We all have preferred ways of doing things, we all have cherished traditions. We need to be open to God revealing this to us. Where might we be resistant to change, where might we be hindering the spread of the gospel?
If you are a pioneer evangelist, you might need help getting people to recognise the culture and traditions that are an obstacle. It's probably better to get outside help. Bring in someone as a third party, someone who understands both sides and can help navigate a way forward.
Alternatively get permission to launch something new like a missional community that is shaped around an innovative way of reaching out. It's best to do this alongside something that is established but they have to give you freedom to experiment and fail.
If Peter who spent three years with Jesus had blindspots, and if God waited seven years to tackle it, try and be sensitive to the culture and traditions. Don't dash off or be offended, it won't help. However, don't let blindspots and traditions dictate policy or practices, find ways to innovate.
If you are a frustrated evangelist or pioneer feel free to get in touch, I am sure we can encourage one another.