Several years ago, I attended a seminar in our area being coordinated by the Navigators. Dr. Jerry White, the president of the Navigators, led the seminar. The topic addressed the apparent inability of the Christian church to reach out to the secular world.
Summarizing some research they had done, Dr. White said,
Our studies reveal that after someone has come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it takes just two years before almost all of their friends are Christians. To be specific, we found that the average Christian who has been a Christian two years has less than one non-Christian friend.
Church as Distraction
I first found myself critical of the Church that distracts people from going into the world, but then I looked at my own calendar. I read over my own prayer list. I thought through my own list of social contacts.
I realized to my own shame that—other than family members—I had no friends outside of my Christian faith. My social life was filled with Christian encounters. I worked with Christians (I was on a church staff at the time). And I was a lousy neighbor; I had never even seen some of my near neighbors, much less met and befriended them.
I determined that something in my life priorities needed to change.
Offense or Defense?
Most interpret Matthew 16:18 ("On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.") as a promise that Christ’s Church will be safe from attack. 1 John 4:4 promises something like that when it says "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." God will protect us.
But Matthew 16:18 is not a defensive verse, promising that we will be safe from outside attack. Instead, it is an offensive verse: the captives that Satan holds in his kingdom will not be safe from our attack.
As God's people, we boldly take the offensive, going out into the world to snatch Satan's captives away from him. God calls us to engagement and to storming the gates of hell in Jesus' name.
Keepers of the Aquarium
The Christian church in middle-class America has moved, in Sam Shoemaker’s words, from being "fishers of men" to being "keepers of the aquarium." While we may not say it so obviously, many live as though the Church’s purpose is to make sure that Christians are happy and content. We focus on our own spiritual health, our own fellowship and our own doctrinal purity, often at the expense of interaction with the world.
We shy away from engagement: we move out of the city; we abandon hope in public school systems; we start Christian organizations as alternatives to the secular world. While these actions often start as tools for the better equipping of the people of God, they often result in disengagement and a move towards privatized faith and irrelevant Christianity.
Christian organizations, Christian schools and universities, and Christian home-schooling lose their focus if we forget the goal—to strengthen the saints so that we might be sent back out into the world as salt and light and as those who transmit the "aroma of Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:15) to our world.
How Do We See Ourselves?
As God’s people in the world, is the church a fortress, protecting us from the world? Or is it a launching point for advancement against the forces of evil?
Do we pursue sinners out of the love of Christ, or avoid the potential harmful effects of being too close to sinners?
Are we penetrating the darkness, or avoiding it? Do we make public proclamation to mainstream society, or nurture a private faith in our comfortable Christian cul-de-sac?
George Hunter calls the privatization of faith "mad Christianity." He explains that a person is deemed mad or insane if the world that exists in his or her head does not connect with the world of reality.
He says that for many Christians, faith, God, Jesus, and the world of the miraculous exists only in their heads and fails to intersect with daily living. Faith is "mad" when it exists in my mind but does not touch the real world (George Hunter III, How To Reach Secular People (Abingdon, 1992), p. 48).
Engagement, on the other hand means studying the issues of our day and interacting. Engagement means involvement; there is no room for hiding ourselves in the church or in our own safety zones. If we act as the people of God, we will infiltrate this world with his love and values so that the world might see Reality (another word for Truth) lived out in relevant ways through us.
God calls us to be his witnesses to the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives as it affects each of the five senses. What does sensory evangelism look like? Witnessing to all the senses follows the “what would Jesus do?” question with questions like: How would Jesus sound? How does Jesus taste? What does Jesus look liketo those outside the faith? What is Jesus’ touch in the world? How would Jesus smell?”
How Would Jesus Sound?
Let’s start with the sense that most of us associate with witnessing—the sense of hearing or the sense of sound. Romans 10:17 tells us, “Faith comes by hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
We want to present Christ in words that challenge people to respond. Indeed, this is what we evangelicals are best at. We preach. We broadcast. We establish tape ministries. We use the media.
This is why we get training on how to evangelize, how to answer tough questions, how to start evangelistic conversations, how to start an evangelistic Bible study—so that people can hear the Good News. We believe that the Gospel must be presented so that people can hear.
Now this never gives us the license to be rude. We need to make sure that our witness is expressed to the world in love — so that our words don’t become just a “noisy gong or clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1). We speak the truth in love.
But there’s more than just audible witness.
Matthew 5:13-15 takes us to the second and third of the senses: taste and sight. After detailing both the spiritual and relational qualities of the follower of Christ (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus uses two analogies to describe the working out of these qualities in the world.
How Does Jesus Taste?
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
Jesus says that the disciple is salt. Bible commentators believe that this salt analogy communicates two or three thoughts. Some observe that in that culture, salt was a preservative; therefore, God’s people serve to retard evil and preserve good in the world.
Others point to the fact that salt was used as an expression of purity—its glistening clarity made it attractive as an offering that was presented in worship. Christians, they say, are supposed to be purifiers in a tainted and stained world.
Both of these applications carry powerful challenges—to ward off evil and to purify—but the primary use of salt that Jesus refers to here refers to salt as a flavor-enhancer. Christians are supposed to add flavor to the dullness of life.
In a world filled with monotony and boredom, the Christian community is supposed to live life in such a way that it becomes tasty, livable, and desirable again. We Christians—filled with the Holy Spirit and living out the character of Christ—are supposed to add flavor to life, to add zest and vigor.
Somehow, along the way, we went the opposite direction and started advertising Christian faith as a way to become dull; we have become known for what we don’t do. This is why Christian faith is often seen as something to be put off until later; have fun now, follow Christ later.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is known to have poignantly put it this way: “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”
In contrast to dullness, we’re supposed to be the flavor-enhancers of life. By living out joyful lives built on a foundation of hope, we live to improve the quality of the lives of those around us.
How can we add zest and flavor and quality to the lives of those we encounter today? How can we improve the lives of those beyond our immediate reach?
What Does Jesus Look Like?
Following in the Matthew 5 passage, Jesus says that we, as his witnesses, appeal to the sense of sight:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
In this second analogy, Jesus compares the disciple to light. Light brightens. Light guides through the darkness. Light warns us from danger.
Into a world dark with sin, we come as lights—not hidden or covered for our own private use, but shining brightly, publicly, like a city on a hill.
Listen to how Eugene Peterson expresses this in The Message:
God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill… Shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
Get Out of the Saltshaker
Jesus does not say, “You are the salt of the Church” or “You are the light of the Church.” We are called to be salt of the earth and light of the World.
When Rebecca Pippert wrote, Out of the Saltshaker, she understood that if we stay in the church, we’d never fulfill our role as salt and light in the world. This is why I get very nervous about our program-oriented, busy North American churches where we offer 1001 options for growth—most or all of which appeal to those who are already Christians.
Friends, if all of our time is spent with our Christian peers, something is drastically wrong. We go to church each week to renew our saltiness and clean up our light—so that Jesus can send us back out into the world refreshed and strengthened.
Being light means that we let people see our faith. We don't hide it or exercise our faith only in the family of God. Instead, we speak up, act out, and go public with our faith. Being light is being (in the words of Oswald Chambers) "conspicuously Christian." There is no room for privatized faith!
And our light, Jesus says, is manifested by good deeds, kind actions, demonstrated love. We don’t do good deeds to be recognized or applauded—Jesus condemns that later in this passage (Matthew 7). Instead, we go about our lives of service and compassion and mercy ministries… and people will notice!
As his salt and light in the world, Jesus calls us to go back out—to be flavor-enhancers and darkness-dispellers in the world. God lights our lamp and we go!
Want your light for Christ to have the maximum effect? Find a dark place and penetrate that darkness.
What is Jesus’ Touch?
Consider Matthew 25:31-46. Without stretching the text too much, I’d like to suggest that Jesus is affirming here that as his witnesses, we appeal to the sense of touch. We are called to bring the touch of God’s love to a broken world. We become the hands of Christ’s mercy to a hurting world and to hurting people.
Sheep and Goats
In this passage, Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats on the Day of Judgment. The sheep are those who have fed Jesus and gave him something to eat; who welcomed him in when he was a stranger and gave him clothes when he was naked; those who visited him when he was sick and when he was in prison.
The righteous will not recall doing these things for Jesus, but the King says that as they acted toward the least among them, so have they acted toward Jesus.
Likewise, those sent to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels are the ones who have refrained from treating well those who were the least of among them.
These verses make me very uncomfortable. The sheep are not selected because they believed the right things or went to all of the appropriate Christian activities. The sheep are affirmed because of the way that their lives touched the needy around them.
Like Jesus’ earthly ministry, our ministry—our witness to the world—must involve touch. And not just the touching of the beautiful people or the people who will thank us or the people who will help get us somewhere. Jesus' touch means touching the helpless, the unclean, the social outcast, and the poor.
Is there any place in your life where you are giving without reciprocation?
How Does Jesus Smell?
The final sense is the one that might most surprise you. As Christ’s witnesses, we go into the world to appeal to people’s sense of smell.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal process in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
2 Corinthians 2: 14-17
Paul tells the Corinthians that they are the fragrance—the aroma—the sweet scent—of Christ. He uses a vivid analogy that the Corinthians understood immediately, but we need some explanation.
He is describing a special parade that the Roman army did called a Triumph. A victorious general who had led an on-field conflict, killed at least 5000 of the enemy, and extended the territory of Rome, would be honored with a victory march through the city of Rome to the capitol building. The march would go like this:
- The state officials would start the march, followed by the trumpeters
- Then would follow those carrying the spoils of war
- Others would carry symbols of the conquest—like models of citadels or ships which had been captured or destroyed
- Then came a white bull—to be sacrificed later.
- Then captive princes, leaders, generals would be led through the city. They were chained together and headed for jail—or in most cases—execution.
- Officers would follow and then the priests—carrying censors filled with burning incense
- The victorious general would come next in his glorious chariot
- And the parade concluded with the soldiers marching and shouting, “We have triumphed.”
Victory Over Death
From that analogy, Paul says that we are the aroma of Christ. The risen Lord Jesus Christ is the victor and we go into the world as part of his Triumph parade singing the words of the hymn, “Thine be the glory, risen conquering son. Endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.”
As his soldiers, we are led through the world in triumphal procession because our Lord has won the victory over death. The fragrance we smell is the fragrance of victory—but the passage also says it is the fragrance of death. What does that mean?
Consider that parade.
Fragrance of Death
If you were a returning soldier or a Roman citizen, the smell of the incense from the censors would mean victory. But for the captives, who smelled the same incense, it was the fragrance of death—because it reminded them of their own imminent execution.
Our Christ-like behavior, our attitudes, our work habits, our relationships, our service to other lingers in the air—like a beautiful perfume or cologne. But our fragrance is not always well received.
To some we are the “fragrance of death” because Christ-like behavior makes them feel judged—even if we say nothing! Why? The presence of Christ in us carries with it both victory and condemnation.
Light illuminates darkness and reveals that which was hidden. Salt stings as it heals. A touch can bring pain—even if it’s part of the healing process. To some, we will be the fragrance of death!
This idea of being Christ’s fragrance is especially significant if you’re seeking to be a witness to people you’ve worked with for years or family members who’ve heard the message many times. In these situations, I enter by breathing the prayer, “Lord Jesus, guide my words and my behavior today so that something about my life leaves the fragrance of Christ. Help me to smell like Jesus today.”
Being the fragrance of Christ in the world means action towards others that leaves the scent of Christ’s love lingering for others to ponder.
Complete Sensory Evangelism
We are Christ’s witnesses. He sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to be his witnesses—but our witness is a whole-life witness—to all of the senses: hearing, taste, sight, feeling, smell. As his witnesses, the challenge is to grow to be a complete witness.
How will I sound today? Am I prepared to give a loving and well thought audible explanation of the hope that I have in Christ?
How will I add flavor today? Am I a flavor-enhancer who improves the quality of life for those around me?
How will I look today? Am I conspicuously Christian in the darkness around me, illuminating Jesus to those around me?
Who can I touch today? Am I the touch of Christ to needy people around me?
How can I leave the aroma of Christ today? Is there a fragrance of the love and life of Jesus Christ in my life that lingers—inviting people to think about eternal realities?
Adapted from Stop Witnessing...and Start Loving, Navpress, 2003. Copyright Paul Borthwick. Used by permission of the author.