Ministering in Modern Day Ninevah
(Note to congregation: the following article was written in response to a request by
Macau Bible Institute.) As a pastor who serves in the gambling mecca of the Western
culture I am often asked, “What is it like living and pastoring in Las Vegas? In a city
so given over to hedonism and greed where does one start? In a culture in which
everyone (it seems) is looking for anything but a relationship with God, how do you
reach them?” I have learned far more about practical ministry and Gospel Christianity
living here than I did in seminary. The purpose of this article is to encourage my fellow
laborers in a sister city, Macau, by sharing some of what I have learned while being a pastor in Las Vegas. It is my hope that God will use this article to further expand His kingdom and display His glory throughout the world. As one would expect I have learned far more from failure than from success. I am also convinced that the reason Spring Meadows Presbyterian Church exists and continues to grow is because of God’s amazing grace.
In my opinion the number one issue in being an effective pastor in a city like Las Vegas or Macau is to love your city. If you have a “Jonah complex” and see your city calling as something you would rather abandon and run from, you will not do well. If self righteousness strangles your compassion you will not reach your city’s people. In other words, to effectively minister in a modern day Ninevah like Las Vegas or Macau God must do deep surgery on your heart. You must see yourself being as needy as the city you are going to. In terms of the parable of the two sons and the waiting father (Luke 15:11-32) you cannot be an elder brother. Las Vegas is a city where prodigals go to escape their Father’s love and control. Some parts of Western culture are what I call “elder brother” or “Bible Belt” cultures. People who live there regard places like Las Vegas as depraved and disgusting. They would never consider ministering in a place like Las Vegas because they fear it would taint their spirituality and cast aspersions on their reputations. I often tell people like this who look with contempt on my city that there is nothing people are doing in Las Vegas the seeds of which are already present in your own heart. Christ came for sinners and that is the only kind of people God saves. To be effective in a prodigal culture you must get over a we/they mindset, i.e. we are the good people who God loves and those are the bad people who hate Him. One of the key themes of the four Gospels is that Christ reverses who we think should be insiders and who should be outsiders (Matthew 21:31). I consider myself a recovering Pharisee and only by God’s grace am I able to love this city. Unless I am the worst sinner I know I cannot minister effectively here. And unless I believe the Gospel has the power to change any and everyone, me included, I will be chewed up and spit out by this place. You must love your city as Christ loves your city.
Another important issue regarding effective ministry in your place of calling is a ministry that fits your city. You need a philosophy of ministry that resonates with the people you are trying to reach. A philosophy of ministry is more specific than a church’s purposes (Acts 2:41-47), but less specific than ministry programs or even its goals or objectives. Instead it describes how a church will go about reaching its community for Christ. It answers the who, why, how and what questions. The who are you question deals with a church’s basic beliefs and theological commitments. The why are you here question deals with a rationale for the church’s existence. Usually this includes the church’s common purposes such as evangelism, discipleship, community, worship, mercy ministries, etc. The how question defines the church’s philosophy of ministry. The what question has to do with the tasks and jobs your church will actually do.
I want to focus on the how question now. This question has to do with contextualization. Where are we? We are in Las Vegas and in Macau. How are we going to accomplish the church’s purposes in this context? We not only exegete the Scripture to our people; we also are to exegete the culture in order to know how to shape the form (not content) of our message to engage the listener. Paul’s sermon on Mar’s hill in Athens is a great model for this approach (Acts 17:16-24). Paul exegeted the city and studied its culture and its idols before he attempted to preach. This sermon is quite different than sermons he preached in the synagogues. This helps us to focus our message to the place in one’s heart it is most likely to be heard. A passion for the Gospel makes us a church for others. We do everything we do remembering our mandate as God’s New Covenant people, to be a light to the nations.
The final issue relevant to a ministry in modern day Ninevah (i.e. Las Vegas and Macau) is to be a missional church. Through a continuous belief and appropriation of the Gospel, Jesus makes us a people for others. As we grow in our grasp of the good news, we no longer exist in a survival mode or with a maintenance mindset. We become missional, a church that exists not for ourselves but for others. Because of the fall we are all curved in upon ourselves. Only the freedom we find in the Gospel allows us to be curved out toward others. Luther put it this way—once we rest from our striving and works to find a gracious God and receive by grace alien righteousness we then are freed to use that energy to love our neighbor. Freed from the pride, exhaustion and despair of our self justification strategies we can give ourselves away in love to others. The Gospel gives us deep respect and a great hope for all of our non-Christian neighbors and associates. The Gospel makes us a people and place where grace has a face, i.e. where non-Christians are expected, welcomed and respected. Their questions and objections are invited and heard. Their struggles and doubts are taken seriously. They are loved not that we might evangelize them, but we evangelize them because we love them. At Spring Meadows we are always thinking of new ways in which we can be a people and a place where grace has a face.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ overcomes the main obstacles to an authentic gracious outward face. First, the joy of the Gospel is contagious and overflowing. When the reality of the Gospel grips us, we simply cannot keep our mouths shut. We “gossip” the Gospel. The news must be shared winsomely, graciously and joyfully. The Gospel overcomes our self absorption and our apathy and makes us a people and a place with an outward face.
Second, the grace of the Gospel overcomes our pride and self righteousness. We Christians tend to see ourselves as if we are superior to unbelievers. Self righteousness is the halitosis of the soul—everyone smells it but we are the last to know. However, the Gospel humbles us. We are saved only by God’s grace not our goodness, cleverness or our works for righteousness. The two components of judgmentalism are self righteousness and free will. Grace properly self deconstructs both. As a result, we approach unbelievers without condescension or superiority and with authentic respect, recognizing that their wisdom and compassion exceeds our own. Remember the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector) in the temple. May Gold deliver us from the “I thank You that I am not like that tax collector” paradigm.
The third obstacle to an outward, gracious face is just plain, garden variety fear and insecurity. We clam up and refuse to share the Gospel of love and grace because we fear rejection, criticism or the inconvenience or discomfort. The Gospel overcomes this when we know a love so great that it casts out all of our fear. Secure in His acceptance and love we can love others with a reckless abandon.
How will we at Spring Meadows flesh out this outward gracious face? What will it look like? First, we will take a relational not a confrontational approach. We will utilize our network of relationships God has already given us to build bridges for the hearing of the Gospel. We will not arrogantly buttonhole or abrasively confront (you are going to hell), but we will seek to present the Gospel in word and deed through authentic relationships.
Another way is to take a process rather than an event approach. We believe that people need multiple exposures to the Gospel. We will communicate not only what we believe but also why we believe it. We want to invite questions and engage in respectful dialogue. People need to see how Christianity relates to where they are.
And we will take a presuppositional approach. This means that we believe every person already believes in God (Romans 1:28). God has already been witnessing to them. Therefore we will help them find “God pointers” (insights into truth) that they already have and use them not to put them down but to direct them back to their Creator and Savior.
Finally, we want to have a “before the nations” perspective in all that we say and do. We will always be expecting and hoping that unbelievers will be “looking on and listening in” wherever we are as a body of believers. In our day to day lives we will love our neighbors. Through the testimony of a transformed life, and deeds of love, mercy, kindness and hospitality we will actively cultivate authentic relationships with non-Christians. We will invite them to church that they may meet Jesus.
In our worship services we will be intentionally conscious of and welcoming to non-Christians in our midst. We want our worship to be intelligible, inclusive and easily understood (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). We will try to check our tendency to elitism and distinctivism (reformed stuff) at the door. We will try through our community groups to reach out to unbelievers and strive to make these places where they can “try on” Christianity.
The bottom line of an outward face core value is that the Gospel will make us a community where Christians say “this is the place to bring my non-Christian friends.” So our hope is that God will fashion us into “a people and a place where grace has a face.”
This is the approach we are taking in Las Vegas and we believe that God has confirmed in many ways that it is the best approach for us. I hope this will be helpful in your strategic thinking for reaching out to Macau.