What to Do with the Unresponsive?


unresponsiveOne of my students is writing on the mission work of Paul as it may provide insight to his ministerial context. Describing the targets of Paul’s work, my student described three groups. First, he noted that Paul reached out to Jews. He would go to the synagogue and share Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Paul would present Jesus through the Hebrew Bible. Second, Paul would reach out to Gentiles. These would include both the God-fearers, who he may find in the synagogues, and others that might be labeled as pagans. The presentation of the Gospel for the Gentiles starts out from Creation and a benevolent God, rather than Hebrew Scripture, and Israel’s redemptive history.

But then my student added a third group. That was the Responsive. I felt that was redundant. If one wanted to speak of three groups, one could choose Jews, God-fearers, and Pagans. But as I read, I could see why it made sense. My student was following the thought of Roland Allen, that a key to Paul was not just in who he targeted, but also who he did not target. Paul did not focus on those who were not (fairly quickly found) responsive. Not everyone would feel that way. One of the books we read for Evangelism class was nice in many ways, but the writer promoted a “don’t take NO as an answer” attitude.

My student quoted a passage from Roland Allen’s classic “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” (p. 75 of the 1962 printing by Eerdmans)”:

The possibility of rejection was ever present. St. Paul did not establish himself in a place  and go on preaching for years to men who refused to act on his teaching. When once he had brought them to a point where decision was clear, he demanded that they should make their choice. If they rejected him, he rejected them. The ‘shaking of the lap,’ the ‘shaking of the dust from the feet,’ the refusal to teach those who refused to act on the teaching, was a vital part of the Pauline presentation of the Gospel. He did not simply go away,’ he openly rejected those who showed themselves unworthy of his teaching. It was part of the Gospel that men might ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’ It is a question which needs serious consideration whether the Gospel can be truly presented if this element is left out. Can there be a true teaching which does not involve the refusal to go on teaching? The teaching of the Gospel is not a mere intellectual instruction: it is a moral process, and involves a moral response. If then we go on teaching where that moral response is refused, we cease to preach the Gospel; we make the teaching a mere education of the intellect.

I wouldn’t say it is strongly as Allen, and I am not sure that Paul would either. Most adults who convert to Christianity, in the US at least, do not do so on the initial presentation. Still, there is an underlying truth that is worth dwelling on.

There is a similarity between Paul’s strategy and Jesus’ strategy in Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples to different villages 2 by 2. They would minister in different villages. If people were responsive, Jesus would come there for more ministry. If the people were not responsive, the disciples were to shake the dust of the village from their feet (taking nothing, not even dust). They would then go onto the next village. The 12 were sent out on one occasion and they were to focus on Jewish villages. On a different occasion 70 (or 72) were sent out with no constraints. As far as we know, they went to all — Jewish, Samaritan, and Pagan villages. We know that Jesus prioritized Jews, and yet reached out to Samaritan and Gentile communities as well.

In missions there has been an argument as to who should be targeted.  Should one target the hardest soils or the easiest soils? Some would say that one should reach the easiest soils. If people are coming to Christ, if the Spirit appears to be working in a place, then we should be putting our efforts there. Others would say that we need to target the hardest soils, the UPGs (unreached people groups). We need to reach everyone and especially those who have not been reached because they are difficult.

Perhaps with Jesus and Paul, we see a FAIRLY OBVIOUS synthesis:

  • Share the message with everyone
  • Focus on those who respond

One could argue that is a reasonable lesson from the Parable of the Four Soils. Some soil is going to be productive, while some soils mostly won’t. But the sower doesn’t decide that. He spreads the seeds everywhere and then tends what grows.

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