Roots and Wings: How the Past is Shaping the Future

The talk that John gave at the recent Institute of Evangelism dinner.\"WC_INSTITUTE_LOGO_CMYK\"


Do you ever wonder what goes on in a class at Wycliffe College? I can’t tell you about every course, but I can tell you what I do in my basic evangelism course.

In the first class, I tell the students that we won’t be talking about evangelism for at least four weeks. Instead, we begin somewhere else: with the Gospel. After all, the word evangelism contains the word evangel, which means good news.

So we begin by discussing what the good news is: some would say it means having a relationship with God through Christ—and yes, it does mean that, but it’s also bigger than that; some would say it means having your sins forgiven because of the death of Christ—and, thanks be to God, it does mean that . . . but it’s not only that; and others would say that through the resurrection of Jesus we have the assurance of life beyond the grave—and it is that too, but that’s still not all.

I love the way Paul states it in Ephesians: the Gospel is “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10); or Colossians 1: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus calls it “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28) or, more simply, the Kingdom.

Everything in our understanding of the faith—indeed, our understanding of life—flows directly from this. If this is the Gospel, it tells us what God is like (God is passionate about dealing with sin and evil and renewing all things); it tells us what mission is (it’s this work of God of putting everything to rights); we know what a Christian is (it’s someone who has responded to Jesus’ call to give up our self-directed lives and become his apprentices in the work of redeeming all things); we know what the church is (it is the gathering of Jesus’ apprentices to worship and learn and to be fed; and (finally) we know what evangelism is (it’s telling people the good news that God is like this—like Jesus Christ—and inviting them to join us as apprentices of Jesus.

That’s a mouthful, I know—but then, it takes four weeks to unpack! But when you come at evangelism through that lens, it makes sense: it’s not a technique or a program: it’s part of God’s plan to draw everything and everyone into this new thing he is doing in the world.

This is the basic way the past—the Good News brought to us by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago—is shaping the future. Not that is really the past, is it? The work of God is still going on. In fact, I like to think of it this way: Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So they did: they witnessed to other people, who then believed; and then those people witnessed to other people, and they believed; and so on and so on; until someone witnessed to you and you believed. So the ripples have been spreading out for 2,000 years, and will continue to do so until the earth is filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea. (Num 14:21, Hab 2:14).

All this is what I mean by the word “roots” in tonight’s title: this Gospel is the source of life and vitality from which the Christian movement grows. These are the roots that nourish it and keep it alive and healthy and growing. If we lose touch with those roots, or cut off from them, we become just one more world religion. Without roots in the Gospel, we die.

So what about the wings? How does that ancient Gospel shape the future?


Judy Paulsen once told me how she had been struck by the parable of the lost sheep. What she realised was that most of our clergy training (traditionally, at least) and the assumption of our church institutions is that the job of Christian leaders is to take care of the 99 who are safe in the fold . . . while the point of the parable is that Jesus’ priority is somewhere else, looking for the one that’s missing! What is wrong with this picture?

The logic of the Gospel, that sweep of the work of God through our world, is that we follow Jesus and his priorities.

I want to give you tonight four encouraging stories of Christians and churches which are fuelled by the Gospel and reaching out beyond the walls—to places where the Gospel is taking wings.

 1.    Wycliffe

One of the challenges of teaching evangelism in the classroom is that evangelism can’t just be a theoretical study. But at the same time, I don’t want to send students out on campus to learn what we might call drive-by evangelism.

This year I experimented with something that seemed to work well. One of the assignments was for students to ask a friend who didn’t claim Christian faith if they would like to do a four-part Bible study with them, one-on-one, and then write up the experience. That combined hands-on experience with a kind of evangelism that was relational, Jesus centred, unpressured, and process-oriented. Here are some of the stories the students told:

I began with one friend, but then all our housemates wanted to get in on it too.

After studying the story of the paralytic man being lowered through the roof by his friends, my friend wanted to know more about Jesus. She was fascinated with him and is keeping an open mind about believing his miracles and healings, and [whether] his death and resurrection could be possible.

I have to consciously force (perhaps encourage is a better word) myself to go to that Starbucks late Wednesday mornings; they, my cafe-atheists, are frequently waiting, and too frequently my schedule gets hijacked by them, their questions and their growing delight.

My 70-something neighbour, who had left the church on bad terms when she was a teenager, and had not subsequently opened the Bible in over 50 years, expressed both delight and surprise at being invited, during the course of our study together, to share HER perspective on what she was reading.

I did my Bible study project with a Muslim. She was interested in learning more about Christianity. We had great discussions and the Holy Spirit led her to an understanding of some of the texts which I never contemplated in the same way before.

 2.    Little Flowers

Here’s one that is written up in Green Shoots. Jamie and Kim Arpin-Ricci have a background in the Pentecostal, Mennonite and Catholic churches but, while they were with YWAM serving the poor in downtown Winnipeg, they discovered Franciscan spirituality.

 They decided that one thing that was needed was a good used bookstore and coffee shop. (Why should people be denied access to good books just because they are poor?) So a community began to grow around the store, which was known as The Dusty Cover. Jamie and Kim also had an open home for their friends. After some time of giving practical help and building friendships, the group said to Jamie, “You know, we’re a church. Will you be our pastor?” So they became a Mennonite congregation.

 That’s what we would now call classic fresh expressons methodology, even though they didn’t use that language: getting to know a neighbourhood, trying to meet needs, building friendships, natural evangelism, and finally a church.  It’s a great example.

 3.    St Maurice and St Verena

A very different expression of the Gospel is a multiethnic Coptic Orthodox church plant (bet you’ve never heard those words in a row before!) in downtown Toronto—Saint Maurice and Saint Verena. I first met the priest, Father Pishoy, when he was doing his D.Min here at TST. He had been a Coptic Orthodox priest for some years, but over time he’d become distressed by the church’s policy that if a member married outside the church—even to a Christian of another tradition—they were automatically excommunicated. And yet if a spouse of a different ethnicity tried to get involved in the Coptic community, they found it very difficult.

 Pishoy’s conclusion was that what they needed was a church that was authentically Coptic Orthodox, but open to people of all ethnicities: it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? People told him he couldn’t do it: it’s not the way we do things round here. So (naturally) he went to talk to the Pope—Pope Shenouda III, that is. (Pishoy is the only person I know who can say, “When I was talking to the Pope last week . . .” I savour that.) And the Pope said, Go for it! So Pishoy did.

 SMSV presently attracts 500 people every week, mainly under the age of thirty, and representing 45 different nationalities, and they are putting up a purpose-designed building quite near Tyndale.

 4.    Redeem the Commute

Eighteen months ago, Wycliffe grad Ryan Sim was sent to start a new church in Ajax. How do you do such a thing these days? It’s not the case that “if you build it they will come.”

 As Ryan did his initial research, he discovered that most of the people he was hoping to reach spend a couple of hours every day commuting to and from downtown Toronto. That meant that when they got home they had little time for anything apart from their families.

 So Ryan, who has a background in computers, invented Redeem the Commute. He designed an app which could be downloaded from the Apple app store, and adapted Alpha materials (particularly the marriage course and the parenting courses) which could then be accessed via the app. What he’s hoping is that individuals and groups will begin to use the materials on the train as they travel, and that out of those groups a community will eventually emerge to be called (logically enough) the Church of the Redeemer. (What does Jesus redeem? He even redeems the commute!)

 So how’s it going? A month ago, Ryan wrote in his blog, “We’ve now hit 600 installations of the mobile app on iPhone/iPad/Android devices, and over 150 unique users in the last week alone! Yes, we doubled our numbers in the last month [being mentioned in a CBC program about commuting didn’t hurt!]. We have great numbers, and are learning to interpret them through a lens similar to the Parable of the Sower: some will use the app once or twice, some will use it regularly, and some will begin to form a community of people learning to follow Jesus. We keep our eyes focused on this last group, knowing that God will touch all sorts of other lives as well.”

 So there are four examples, and in all of them the ancient Gospel is inspiring people to take the Gospel to places and people where it is not known. Aren’t they great stories?

A question I hear a lot these days is: Will the church survive? It’s understandable and it’s natural, but it’s actually the wrong question to ask. Jesus has some pretty discouraging things to say about survival. Listen:

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, \”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Mark 8:34-36

According to Jesus, seeking self-preservation is a recipe for death. His recipe for vitality is actually the opposite: not hanging on to our life but giving it away, for his sake and for the Gospel.

Will the church survive? Of course. The church will survive because it is God\’s idea that human beings should work with him in his mission. But the church will survive on God’s terms, not ours—and he has made it pretty clear what those terms are.

The challenge of the Gospel is use the resources God has given us—not just our money and our buildings, but our energy and our imagination, our love and our creativity—to worry less about the ninety-nine, and to join Jesus in searching for those outside the fold. And the promise of God is that this is the way of life and of joy.



2 thoughts on “Roots and Wings: How the Past is Shaping the Future”

  1. Judith Purdell-Lewis

    I was very sorry to miss the dinner this year, but delighted to be able to ‘hear’ your inspiring talk via the website.

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