How Speaking of Jesus Changed My Preaching

Preaching of JesusSpeaking of Jesus: The Art of NOT Evangelism isn’t intended to be a book on preaching. It’s a book about the primary ways we interact with people who don’t know Jesus.

So it’s a book about evangelism, or, as the subtitle suggests, a book about NOT doing evangelism the way we used to.

As I read and digested Speaking of Jesus for my own personal use, however, I began to notice the way I typically talked began to shift slightly. Some of the vocabulary I had picked up from Carl Medearis, either in his book or in person, began to be the way I usually said things.

What’s more, I started to talk to other people about using that new vocabulary; I found that my preaching, in places, sounded more and more like Carl.

Sometimes Carl gave me a way of saying things I was already feeling; sometimes Carl challenged me to say things differently, and I’m still trying out a new voice. But either way, Speaking of Jesus has found its way into my pulpit. Here are a few example of how.

Stop Being on the Defensive

I’ve never been one who enjoys conflict, though I see how a healthy disagreement can bring growth. One of the things I dislike about “defending the faith” is how easily apologetics can turn into atheist bashing. I once heard it said that if you disagree with me, you must be either stupid or evil. It’s easy to assign non-Christians one or both of those designations.

big gunDon’t do it.

There are some really decent and intelligent people who don’t know and follow Jesus. Our mission as Church is not to blow these pagans out of the water. Rather, we are to point them to Jesus. You can’t actually do both at the same time.

Carl’s pretty good at encouraging people to give up on winning the war with non-Christians and stop trying to beat people into submission / into the Kingdom. The whole concept of being in attack mode fits well within the cultural metaphor Argument is War, something you can read more about here: Outreach and Warfare.

Not only attack mode, but even being on the defensive is part of the broader Argument is War thinking in our culture. When we feel under attack, we respond to non-Christians in a reflexively combative way. Speaking of Jesus helps point that out.

Here’s one of many helpful quotes on the subject:

But when injured, we change. Under fire from a hostile and misunderstanding world, we grow defensivebegin challenging and targeting different opposition groups, demolishing the characters and teachings of individuals through media outlets, pamphlets, and even sermons. It becomes very difficult to “love the sinner, hate the sin” when we hole up in a defensive posture (170).

Medearis wants us to give up on trying to defend the faith or the Church to unbelievers; instead, he wants us to talk to them about Jesus.

That invitation to engage people as people and not as enemies has also found its way into my sermonizing. I’ve started to tell people they don’t have to defend Jesus or the history of the Church.

I even stole something I saw Carl do live and added it to my repertoire: at a pastors’ conference in Texas, Carl used his closed fist to show the way we tend to hold on to and defend the Truth.

He contrasted that with holding the Truth in an open palm, making it available for others to see, poke at, or maybe even borrow … If we know it’s the Truth, we don’t have to defend it; we can hold it loosely enough to let others have some, too.

That basic idea resonated with me. A year later, I heard Bob Goff speak at a mission-minded conference (#Wiki13) in Houston. He said something similar about holding out water to marathoners running past his house. I joined the two images in a sermon on stewarding the Christian faith.

The clip below picks up at 14:58, about two-thirds of the way through a sermon on the stewardship of teaching. One of the main goals of the sermon was to get people to stop trying to protect the teachings of the faith. Instead, I wanted them to use the teachings of the faith as protection in a changing world and as tools to reach out to others.

I find that emphasis on using rather than protecting the teachings of the faith to be both biblical and something I think Carl Medearis might approve of …

Keep Jesus at the Leading Edge

I think most of us would say we want to keep Jesus at the center of our theology; as long as we are only talking about theology, I think that’s exactly the right sentiment.

I’m all for being Christocentric in our preaching, teaching, and systematic theology. The Gospel message is at the heart or center of who we are, and while all theology connects back to the center, some of our theology is admittedly more at the periphery.

circle and dotsAs long as this metaphor of central/peripheral describes the importance of different theological formulations or expresses a desire to be centered (focused on) Jesus, sign me up: I am there.

When we confuse our theological system with the Kingdom, however, some bad things happen. We begin to see ourselves as “in” the Kingdom with Jesus and others standing on the “outside.” In this scenario, the peripheral issues in our theological system become blended with the outside boundaries of a Kingdom container which includes US but not THEM.

If you’d like to explore that phenomenon a little more in-depth, check out the article Outreach and Containers. What’s important for our current discussion is simply the observation that we tend to make the outskirts of our theology or the boundary issues of our morality the place where we encounter outsiders.

In other words, we tend to confront / encounter new people in the context of moral debate (gay rights, life issues) or theological boundary issues (close communion, infant baptism).

If we keep Jesus in the center but all of our conversation with outsiders takes place on the periphery, guess what we never get a chance to talk about? Jesus.

That’s right. The single most important and life changing thing about our faith–the person of Jesus–is kept at the center, and therefore miles and miles away from outsiders.

Stop it. That’s just not right. Put Jesus back at the leading edge of our encounter with outsiders (while keeping Him at the center of our theology).

Don’t make someone conform to your political, moral, or theological view before you will talk to them about Jesus; you’ll never get around to it.

I remember moving the creation/evolution presentation out of the first session for new people while I was still on vicarage. It’s not that I don’t think creation is a vital part of our faith; it’s just that if someone leaves that first new member class scratching their head and wondering if they’ll ever be back, I want the stumbling block to be Jesus crucified and risen. I still teach on creation, but I lead with Jesus.

I find Speaking of Jesus to be very helpful in this regard. Medearis shows a strong sense of the visible and invisible Church and suggests we spend less time worrying about the boundary you have to cross to be “in” the kingdom and spend more time actually talking to people about Jesus. Here’s just one of many quotes along those lines:

Instead of trying to define the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, we point to Jesus. We don’t have to “own up to” Christendom this way. We simply follow Jesus … If we’re saved into the boundaries of a circle, we owe our allegiance to that boundary, and we’re going to try to bring others inside it (72; 74).

In a sermon on reaching out, I sound kind of like Speaking of Jesus: the focus is on following, not on getting it right first and then following.

“How can we go to someone who doesn’t live like I do, or vote like I do, and love them in a such a way that invites them to follow Jesus?” That’s a question that confronts the Church in our current culture. And I think Medearis helps us ask the right questions.

The following clip starts at 15:30, well into the sermon. The text talks about Jesus going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and leading His disciples right through Samaria–a place where people don’t live or worship like the disciples do.

The sermon is an invitation NOT to take the devout detour around people who don’t live like us. Like I say in the sermon, I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I think we need to ask them more and more often and try to answer them together.

That sermon and others like it also share the theme of “following Jesus.” That journey metaphor is a great alternative to the “in vs. out” container thinking we often fall back on. For more, see the article Outreach and Journey or the sermon Invitation to the Discipleship Journey.

Distinguish between Jesus and Religiosity

One of the most important, and difficult to hear, messages of Speaking of Jesus is that our own religious structures can get in the way of introducing people to Jesus. One of the challenges of understanding Medearis’ point is that language starts getting slippery: most Christians understand one thing by the term “Christianity” while most of the unbelieving world understands something quite different.


And in some ways, even that disconnect proves the point: as long as we insist on external packaging of any kind, including good, helpful practices or labels, we run the risk of using tradition to obscure the Gospel.

Of course, I would like to say my particular theological tribe, the Lutherans, are least susceptible to this, if for no other reason than we have been waving that particular flag from our very beginning. But the problem with the proverbial Church-going fish is that it has no unbiased vantage from which to view the water.

So we must always be asking what do we do that helpfully delivers the goods for some but may stand in the way of God’s mission for others? What about our life together runs the risk of being merely religious instead of pointing people to Jesus?

Everyone lives in a context and it’s good to be sensitive to the American Christian context as much as any other. (37)

It’s hard to be aware of how much our context influences our message, but one of the things Speaking of Jesus taught me is that it is possible. It’s possible to set aside religiosity and focus on Jesus.

It’s not easy, but it can happen. And when that focus on Jesus makes its way into conversations with outsiders, it’s a lot easier to get at the heart of what’s important (by that I mean JESUS) a lot faster.

This response from a Muslim is typical to the stories Carl tells in his book. I want people to say these kinds of things about me, too.

“If this man had talked about theology or doctrine or even Christianity, I wouldn’t have been interested. I’ve heard all of that from my Christian friends. But he talked about Jesus in a way I’ve never heard before and had never thought of. I thought it was amazing (37).”

I guess I take comfort in the fact that this kind of talking was something Carl had to grow into, too. Of the early part of his ministry, Medearis says:

I was so busy trying to convert people to Christianity that Jesus never had a chance (38-39).

Could that ever be true of our congregations or our ministries as well? If so, what can we do to raise that awareness? What might we say to make people less comfortable with religiosity and long for Jesus a little more?

Again, this is a growth area for me personally, and in my preaching. I don’t think I am there yet. But I pray I am moving in the right direction.

I actually said, out loud, at church, in front of God and everybody: “If there is anything in your life that you label ‘religious’ and it doesn’t drive you to your knees in the presence of Jesus, get rid of it; it doesn’t belong.” Yeah. Ouch.

I don’t think I would have said it that way ten years ago. But I think it’s right. That may not be how you want to start a sermon, but you might need to say something like it from the pulpit on occasion.

The sermon below is on the Healing of the Ten Lepers from Luke 17. The whole sermon focuses on three discipleship movements or postures, so I’ll start the sermon video at the beginning.

The rather shocking quote about getting rid of religious things in your life that don’t lead you to Jesus happens around 7:39. But the whole thing expresses my developing understanding of discipleship and how to preach it.

In that process of developing a vision and language for discipleship, I am indebted to Carl Medearis and his one-track mind. It sounds overly simple and rather obvious, but it bears repeating: discipleship is all about JESUS.

About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

10 comments on “How Speaking of Jesus Changed My Preaching

  1. Yep.  Liked it.  Forwarded to my family and an African-American Baptist preacher friend.


  2. Thank you for blessing me with the insights, instruction, encouragement … excellent!

  3. Justin, I read your blog…I’m totally engaged by the ideas. Plus – bonus! – I got to check out some of your sermons. That was perfect for a cold, snow day when it is way too quiet at church this morning. So first, thank you.

    Second, I just want to offer a little confirmation. I don’t think my opinion matters one yoda (yes, yoda – i paid great attention in Greek class). However, I think you are offering some great leadership on discipleship that is important. We can’t expect people to act like Christians before they encounter Christ. He transforms us after we spend time with Him and receive His gifts. Great stuff.

    Third, I’m really wrestling in my mind, taking in what you’re saying and having taken in a recent message by Ken Ham when I visited the Creation Museum near Cincinnati. He was talking about the difference in our audiences, that American people used to be more like the Jews of Acts 2 (ready for Peter’s “repent and be baptized” message – mass conversions b/c they were ready for the Gospel. They had foundations, knowing who God is, that sin and death are problems, etc. Fastforward to Acts 17 and Paul engages the Athenians, but has to start at the beginning, laying foundations. Now you’ll see why this is important to Ken Ham and Creation Museum’s message. Athenians didn’t have foundations yet, upon which the cross could rest. So, Paul starts with the basics…there’s a God you don’t know. He created. Sin and death are problems (though you might not have known that yet). Then, Paul brings in Jesus. B/c Paul took the time to lay the groundwork, some believed – massive success (even if some scoffed).

    He related it to this to 1 Cor. 1:23, the cross is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Greeks. He was was using Jews/Greeks as an allegory for Americans 20-150 years ago (Jews, ready to hear the cross with foundations laid) and many Americans now (they need to know about the creation first – of course Ken would suggest that – and about the deadly effects of sin, etc.; then the cross will be their relief). I’m just pondering how this all fits in with the material in your blog. If you’ve got time I’d love to catch a response from you, but don’t feel like you need to for my sake. I’m just doing a little out-loud thinking.

    Finally, great preaching, brother! Great ministry leadership. I am so grateful for your work and hope the Lord prospers it. Much love.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Brian! I love this comment: “We can’t expect people to act like Christians before they encounter Christ. He transforms us after we spend time with Him and receive His gifts.”

      You raise an important question when it comes to interacting with an unbelieving world: what do they need to know before they get to know Jesus?

      I think the simple answer is: NOTHING.

      But let me give you a bit more complicated answer, as well. Part of what I think Ken Ham is saying is that people need know there is a creator God and there is sin and that’s a problem before the message of forgiveness can be experienced as grace, or even make sense at all. “Jesus forgives your sins,” is seems silly to a world that has no concept of sin.

      This resonates well with a Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel: the Law does the work of convicting and tearing down so that the Gospel can bring forgiveness and raise from the dead; the killing experientially precedes the making alive.

      So we might want to say that before an unbeliever can experience Jesus as Lord and Savior, they need to experience themselves as lost and sinful. That makes a kind of Law-then-Gospel sense.

      The problem with that position is the same problem we have whenever we add something to Jesus: how much is enough? How deeply must they repent? How sinful do they need to feel before Jesus can be their Savior?

      Do they have to acknowledge all of their sins publicly, especially the big ones in our American culture, before they can receive any forgiveness? How much of the theology of creation, original sin, incarnation, judgment, and law must they confess before we are ready to give them Jesus?

      What’s the alternative?

      What if we simply introduced non-god-fearing, pagan, sinful people to Jesus? What would He do with them?

      Granted, they probably wouldn’t acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord right away; they might not run to Him for the forgiveness they don’t think they need. But what if they got interested in HIs teaching? Even if they thought He couldn’t possibly be God in the flesh, what if they started to read about Him, talk about Him, maybe even follow Him? What would happen then?

      I can’t say it’s a fool-proof road to conversion, but if I had the chance to leave an unbeliever with one thing to chew on next week, I would go with Jesus rather than the truth of sin in the world.

      If, on their death bed, they finally believe there is a God and He created and they are a sinner, you have confirmed their damnation. If, on the other hand, they take a chance and dare to believe the rather silly stuff about Jesus forgiving sins and being Savior and God might actually be true, there’s a fighting chance you’d get to see them in the Resurrection.

      I think introducing unbelievers to Jesus gives the Gospel a fighting chance; at this point, that’s all I’m after …

      Thanks for thinking this through with me! Let’s keep figuring this out together!

  4. I love this! I hadn’t heard of Carl until today when I saw this post and a tweet from FiveTwo. Thanks for sharing!

  5. This reminds me of the “relationship evangelism” we used when I was involved in a coffee house ministry. The goal: develop a meaningful relationship with another person. As one shares what is meaningful to him — if Jesus is the most meaningful aspect of my life — it becomes natural to bring Him into the conversation without having to force the conversation in a spiritual direction.

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