Keeping It Real – Finding a New Authenticity in Evangelism

I’ve always wanted to go to a health spa. Get a masseuse to work on me for three hours a day, roll around in that therapeutic hot mud, walk slowly across perfectly manicured lawns under a perfectly blue sky, read a great book while sipping on strawberry-flavored lemonade. If I could hang out for a little while—you know, just three or four months—I know I could get renewed and refreshed for powerful ministry. Aren’t those the sort of conditions that would just about make it impossible not to be healthy? What else needs to be stirred into the environmental mix to ensure healing and wholeness?

I’m sure there are a number of ingredients crucial to this recipe for whole health. Some are overtly spiritual contributions, others address our psycho-social needs (Note: this refers neither to stalkers nor the label we earn when we return to circulate among our adult friends after a week with junior high kids; as in “What’s with Dave? He’s really Psycho-Social tonight!”) Of all the contributors to our health, one has been the source for some of God’s greatest renewal in my own life over the past ten years.

I want to pay homage to the incredible benefit we receive when we learn to be real and are surrounded by those who help us keep it real. For some of us, this might not be as natural or simple as it sounds. I know it’s been a challenging journey for me.

A Good Witness
I came into the faith as a high school sophomore and soon learned from my new home church how important it was for me to establish my own solid witness for Christ among my friends. In living a holy life, I could show others what it meant to follow Jesus. Whatever initiatives I took in telling others about Jesus would be enhanced or diminished by the quality of life I put forward. As a result, there were many interactions, challenges and encouragements among the Christian students in our school as we worked to collectively clean up our witness.

Our growing band of high school Christians would meet together so often it seemed like we knew every detail of everyone’s life. We noticed if folks were absent and got after them to make sure they didn’t miss the next gathering. As more kids put their faith in Christ, there were more incidents of believers giving to common adolescent temptations. On Monday morning we might learn how Sally had been drinking at a weekend party. Inevitably someone would have a conversation with Sally, urging her to be restored to Christ and His family by asking forgiveness and rededicating herself to a holy life.

In retrospect, this sort of accountability might seem in-your-face and harsh. But Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount supplies us with the memorable image of believers as salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Peter offered an extension of this teaching in his widely circulated letter: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they may malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when He comes to judge” (1 Pet. 2:11-12). Point a bunch of dedicated high schoolers to these verses, and it’s not surprising that there’d be a push to be good witnesses.

In these formative early years, I learned to put a premium on living so as not to compromise my witness. I came to appreciate how important a witness of integrity is to our efforts in evangelism.

My subsequent attendance at a Christian college reinforced the idea that it was important for me to work hard at living a sin-free life. But there were a couple of major differences. In high school, our evangelistic witness was on the line every day. In college, it seemed like it was our Christian college’s image that was at stake. (The few non-Christians attending our school were assumed to know what they’d gotten into by choosing to come to a Christian college.) In high school, Sally’s partying received some loving interpersonal confrontation. In college, it was just as likely that her drinking would receive a swift disciplinary response on an institutional—rather than interpersonal—level.

The stakes for living an exemplary life had been raised. In fact if you were a Christian college student still struggling with temptations, it was better for your academic career—if not your soul—to keep those struggles hidden.

Being a good witness became synonymous with having an impeccable public image as a Christian. An unintended consequence was the inclination to cover up anything that might detract from being seen as a good example, one marvelously submissive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

This atmosphere of underground authenticity wasn’t conducive to evangelism. Even though there weren’t a lot of non-Christians attending my school, I’d become friends with a significant number of them. It was maddening to feel the need to defend image-preserving institutional responses when I wanted to engage my buddies in an honest exploration of the claims of Christ on their lives. And of course I thought my own impeccable image was essential to my witness.

As I moved into full-time ministry, I brought with me the conviction that Christians ought to be exemplary witnesses of what life in Christ should be. The better our examples, the more fruitful our evangelism ministry would be. Along with this luggage I brought an additional carry-on that I wasn’t even aware of: Don’t ask, don’t tell…and you can assume that it’s all good, brother!

No Time
A ministry of evangelism among students is highly demanding. Those who want to be steadily fruitful find out quickly that they need to regularly renew their commitment to personal discomfort. The real action is in the trenches where kids live and need to be engaged. When you’re on a ministry team that’s passionate about reaching teens, the military metaphors seem to fit. You work hard, expect opposition, and celebrate victories without a lot of time to pause and ponder, let alone share. Our job was out there, and if we spent too much time together, we might lose some of our battle toughness.

At least that’s how I attacked the job. And I recruited others who wanted to join in this adventure. My fellowship with these ministry partners was cemented by our appreciation for the work rather than the inner thoughts and feelings we exchanged. This was ministry survival of the fittest, in which the only shame was not keeping up with others’ productivity.

As a result, we didn’t take the time to keep up with each other’s lives. Casualties became more frequent. A staff woman lasted two years before leaving discouraged; she was replaced and hardly remembered within a month. Another lost track of his marriage and the relationship ended; we bandaged him quickly and sent him off for a new assignment. A young father who protested that the work demands didn’t square with his family priorities didn’t survive his first year. A talented young man couldn’t conquer his personal insecurities to establish a new ministry beachhead; he left within two years and still feels the sting of that departure. Moral failure surfaced, surprised us all, and left us bewildered about what kind of witness we were providing our community.

I was a primary contributor to this climate—the hard-driving sergeant who asked a platoon of youth evangelists to swallow their pain and move forward for the sake of the kids. My highly strategic work required that I keep my eye on the prize, so I coached my team to provide the kind of example for Christ necessary for evangelistic results. Be a good witness and do it quickly—there are a lot of lost kids.

Be Real
Fast-forward about 10 years—I was a college professor trying to make sense of the world as I taught young youth ministry majors. While I was still passionate about evangelism, my own gifts and strategy set me up to concentrate more on the worker-side of the harvest. I hadn’t lost the conviction that being a good witness is central to any ministry.

Something began to reshape the content of this conviction. Life seasoned me, tempered my expectations. I struggled to balance my many commitments, and raising a family had been humbling. God had used me in spite of my tremendous limitations. In spite of the fact that my promising start toward a holy life, begun 30 years ago, had sputtered; in spite of my ego-riddled, achievement-oriented leadership style; in spite of wounded coworkers I’d left behind in my exuberance; and in spite of the students I’d intimidated with my demands for excellent lives—God had used me.

The students in my classrooms heard me honestly explore these struggles.

Through years of ministry I saw that my most lasting legacy was connected with my unfiltered authenticity with people. When I was able to be real about my inadequacies, my vulnerability was leveraged for God’s glory.

I caught on to the liberation of what it means to be a good witness according to Paul: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Phil. 3:12). He celebrated that our Christian life is in “…jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). He recounted that God had taught him through his own struggles that God’s “…grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

To be a good witness is to fight the good fight, to persevere, to plug away, to keep on truckin’…not to be perfect. Perfection is our destination, but for now we’ll do very well if we concentrate on what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

As I was climbing mountains in Wyoming, it wouldn’t have helped for my guide to perch on the summit and wave in my direction, soundlessly mouthing.

“C’mon Dave, you can do it!” In fact, I depended most on the climber only a couple of steps in front of me—puffing, stumbling, sweating and groaning just like me.

One last dangling conviction was unaccounted for in my transformation. My evangelistic rationale for being a good witness still compelled me to want to put my best-dressed foot forward. But my world got whole as I saw the evangelism training at Youth for Christ’s DC/LA ’97 come together around six core values, the first of which was be real. As an evangelism professor, I was well familiar with many different training approaches. But I’d never seen the value of being real—with all of the implications of the sloppy life that non-Christians might have access to—elevated to such a pivotal point.

I’d learned that a well-articulated testimony points someone to first discover that they needed Jesus—past tense. This training insisted that a good witness get in touch with the reality that we need Jesus now, today. And rather than keep this as a Christian family secret, we ought to open ourselves up for inspection by non-Christians while we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Today, after 30 years in youth ministry, my liberation—in theory if not yet in practice—is complete. I’ll say along with Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am….” Youth ministry today isn’t about to submit to the standards of underground authenticity. Being real has integrated our evangelism and our worship and all the Starbucks conversations in between.

May the big heal from keeping it real never end.