This week, Gordon, our Chair of Trustees, shares with us an example of the training that is given to our Street Pastors.
This article summaries teaching I have given to Street Pastors as part of their training on evangelism. I first came up with the model when I was asked to prepare a paper for a Clergy Conference in Windsor some years ago, which was based on an analysis of conversations between patrols and the public included in Team Leader reports. Fascinatingly, these reported many significant conversations about faith. The model outlined below applies to all faith sharing situations where people are interested but largely ignorant about Christianity.
Do Christians need to rethink their understanding of what is involved in speaking about God to those who know little about Him? Assuming that the purpose of such conversations is to help people encounter God for themselves, rather than simply have an interesting discussion, then developing ‘conversational models’ that enable this to happen would be helpful. One such model is suggested by the well known Easter story of Christ’s encounter with the couple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).
The Emmaus two are travelling away from Jerusalem. The events of the previous three days have left them devastated: they are disillusioned with their religion (v 20), disappointed in Jesus (v21) and are thus despairing about their future. They have heard strange stories about empty tombs and angelic visions, but are deeply sceptical about their veracity.
As they journey, Jesus comes alongside, but incognito; he engages them in conversation by asking them to tell their story (v17). He responds by telling them God’s story, which has at its heart his story, including the real story of Easter (vv26-27). In doing so, he enters into their story, subverts it and transforms it, restoring hope to their hearts (v 32).
Arriving at their home they invite the stranger in- they want to continue the encounter. Jesus is now revealed to them in a simple act that echoes the Last Supper. He then vanishes- the encounter ends. And then the couple make the decision to return to Jerusalem, where the witness of the other disciples confirms the truth of their encounter.
The Emmaus two represent many in our post Christian culture: disillusioned with religion, disappointed in Jesus, despairing of the future- and travelling in the wrong direction. Talking about God in meaningful ways, ways that stir up hope and excitement and the desire to know more about the God who is being talked about, requires the approach of Jesus.
In a sense, today’s Christians are ‘Jesus incognito’. He is in us by his Spirit but is not recognised by those we encounter. And like Jesus, we need to be willing to walk with people who are going in the wrong direction. Jesus does not immediately command them to repent- ie insist on a metanoia, a turning around and going in the opposite direction. He travels with them.
So must we. The people encountered on the streets of Chester have all sorts of ideas about life, faith, God and Christianity. Genuine encounter means accepting and respecting.
Like Jesus, we need to first listen. When Jesus does talk about God, and himself, he does so in response to the particular concerns and problems of the couple (‘they crucified him’… vs ‘did not the Messiah have to suffer..?’). If our stories about God are going to be heard, they will need to relate to the circumstances of our conversational partners. For example, many people have an image of God as an angry tyrant, looking for an excuse to punish, while others believe God to be far off and indifferent to human suffering. Responding to these different views requires that we highlight different aspects of the God story.
This is what Jesus does with the Emmaus two. He tells God’s story in such a way as to show the Emmaus couple what their recent experiences really mean, and how it is that they have come to the wrong conclusions. He draws them into God’s story by helping them to find their place within it.
But their eyes are opened when he breaks the bread. On the road Jesus is the stranger who tells them the story of God. In the home, he is the risen Lord who is encountered personally, with life-changing consequences.
This close encounter with the living Jesus is not something followers of Jesus can bring about. This is the work of the Spirit. Our role is to be ‘Jesus incognito’, to listen and to tell God’s story, to encourage people to come closer to God and to address their concerns as best we can. But ultimately, they need to encounter Jesus for themselves. To repeat: conversations about God- to be effective- require that we are having conversations with God, praying for eyes to be opened and for the living Jesus to be encountered.
When the couple recognise Jesus the metanoia takes place. They turn around and return to Jerusalem. The stories they thought to be fantasy turn out to be true. Their story has been turned upside down. The story of God now has at its heart the story of Jesus.
My suggestion is that the Emmaus road story provides a conversational model which those who want to talk about God could and should adopt. It will often mean that we will not be ‘in at the finish’- the journey towards God will continue but we will not be present. (Interestingly, neither was Jesus in the story. The couple decided to return to Jerusalem, after Jesus had vanished!). However, we will have played our part. If hearts are to burn within human breasts, then modern day disciples need to be willing to listen, to tell the story of God appropriately, and to trust that God’s love for those we encounter will always be infinitely greater than ours.