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jazz evangelism – mark keown

I am currently researching the gospel and its proclamation in the New Testament. My enquiry is driven by a sense that many who engage in evangelistic preaching in NZ and more broadly are preaching a gospel that is reduced and formulaic. The proclamation of the gospel is also rather limited, lacking the breadth of approach seen in the ministries of Jesus and the first Christians.

One thing that stands out is that when we do have evangelism training, we are generally coached to share the gospel in one particular way, perhaps based on a tract or easy to learn pattern. We are encouraged to employ the same pattern with each person.

The gospel presentation might be something like I myself have come up with, what I call, the 5 R’s of the gospel—relationship, rupture, restoration, return, and response (What’s God Up to on Planet Earth). There are a range of others out there.

Yet, when we look at the evangelism of Jesus, the Gospels themselves, the sermons in Acts, and the ways the gospel is represented to believers in letters, we look in vain for such a construct. Jesus and the early Christians did not preach in such a way. They preached with much more imagination and creativity than one stereotypical presentation.

Let’s take Jesus for example and just focus on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Grab a red-letter Bible (they do have their uses) and skim through noting the speech of Jesus say in Matthew. Amidst healing, feeding, calling disciples, and traveling, there is some systematic evangelism—parabolic maxims addressing ethics and the Christian life (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount) and parables which teach on the Kingdom of God (e.g. Matt 13). Aside from these seeming systematic moments, Jesus engages in a bit of expositional teaching (e.g. Mark 12:35–37).

What dominates is a huge number of one-off dialogues with individuals. Indeed, aside from the blocks of ethical teaching and parables (e.g. Mark 4), generally the Synoptic Jesus is in conversation with people, and the conversation is dynamic.

Track from Matthew 8:1 on. First, a leper approaches Jesus asking if he is willing to heal him. Jesus simply says, “I am willing.” He says nothing about giving his life to him, entry to the Kingdom, believing, repenting, or saying a sinner’s prayer. The healed man is simply to go and show the priest (Matt 8:1–4).

Then, a Roman centurion comes asking for healing for his servant. Jesus and a Gentile have a stunning conversation where the man refuses to allow Jesus to break social convention and come to his home and Jesus heals the man’s servant from a distance (Matt 8:5–13). There is no appeal for entry to the Kingdom, faith, propitiation, but a recognition of already existing faith. Jesus then effectively assures him of a seat at the eschatological banquet and the healing of the boy.

After further healings, Jesus is encountered by a scribe who seeks to follow him and Jesus simply quotes a maxim concerning future homelessness. Another disciple pipes up asking to go home and bury his dad, and then Jesus answers with an implicit no declaring the man’s wider family spiritually dead (Matt 8:18–22).

The pattern goes on as he encounters demoniacs, paralytics, tax-collectors, Pharisees, rich rulers, and so on. No two encounters are the same. They have the common pattern of Jesus out there in the world of sinners, available to minister to their needs, and seeking encounters. Sometimes he initiates. A lot of the time people approach him. Jesus then ad libs in the moment, speaking without any real pattern, as he heals and exorcises demons.

What does this tell us? Where sharing the Christian message in a church on a Sunday, as we evangelise unbelievers, or just hanging with other people, we can take from Jesus’ approach a challenge to be way more creative in the way verbalise the Christian message both in terms of content and delivery.

Sure, we must know the gospel, and those stereotypical patterns like the five R’s are useful to get us started. However, we can’t stop there. We have to be more creative and imaginative. We have to engage in the moment with real focus—listening to the person and understanding them. We have to have an ear out for what God might be saying and doing. We then respond. We don’t have to pack the whole gospel into every presentation, Jesus never did. We may not even say anything much at all.

I like to think of it as Jazz Evangelism. We learn the music of the gospel through the systems people have come up with. Then, just as jazz musicians might do when jamming, we put the music sheets away and jam. That is, we go out and into our churches and world and we riff off the moment. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Our NZ context has had a gutsful of listening to our boring pallid “music.” It is time to get way more creative and imaginative in sharing the gospel. Yes, it must be the gospel, but we can learn a lot from Jesus about how to make it a lot more dynamic. Keep jamming.

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