20 Essential Ministry Books // #2 “Ambiguous Evangelism” Bob Mayo

ambiguous evangelismIn the area of youth ministry, there are a few books which have become essential reading because of the shifts in cultural identity, worldview and – in essence – the understanding that others have about who God is and what the gospel is.  To be blunt, many of those we want to reach with the good news have no idea what we are talking about.  This book helps us think about the story we are immersed in, and the story we want to share with others.  

An example from my own practice of why this book is essential – I love films, I love watching them for themselves – but, being someone who works with children and young people, I also love looking out for the parallels with the gospel story, the meta-narrative that holds everything together.  I then think to myself, “what a great clip to use!”, now, it might be a great clip – but, I can also make an assumption that the clip will “speak for itself”, that the illustration will be an obvious piece of genius on my part and everyone watching the clip will “get it”.  Less is more (a picture is as a 1000 words, so I don’t need to explain it . . . )  This just is not true anymore, it is the same with us thinking that relational youth work will ultimately lead young people to ask about our “Christian” motivation for doing such youth work . . . and then they will think about the claims of Christ and, having reassessed their previously held perception of Christianity – become Christians (ta da!)  However,

the young person is not going to reconsider a previously help view about Christianity if they didn’t have a previously held view about Christianity in the first place.” (page 51)

The reality is that we are working with the second and third generation of young people who have grown up without a Christian worldview, without in fact, knowing anything about the Christian story.

There are some excellent chapters in this book that helps us consider how on earth we engage with a culture that has no idea what we believe, why we believe and how we practice those beliefs.  Grasping the challenges of our culture and society, the issue of language and how we use it and understand it, the choices that have grown almost exponentially in a pluralist climate is key if we are to navigate ourselves through and be effective in our evangelism, especially with young people.

Bob is a great thinker.  The areas he explores in the book, around the importance of story, the use of play, the need to focus on Jesus the person (rather than Christianity the religion) are all areas that others have written whole books about in the last decade . . . however, I like the brevity with what Bob outlines the various challenges and the research and academic rigour that backs it up – not a word is wasted, this is not a padded book or a book that focuses on an attractive cover or outrageous claims to make you buy it.  It is just a bit of brilliance that should be on every shelf of those serious about evangelism today.

Coming back to the use of film, one of the most powerful ideas in cinema is the way what happens “off camera” is alluded to.  Things are either suggested or hinted at, or it all there for you to witness in all its forensic gory detail.  Bob highlights the “space” in scripture created by some of the things not seen, or not known, or not mentioned that add something if we come at those bits with creative questions and reflection.  It is our ability (or not) to draw some of these invisible dots that can make the difference between young people grasping the significance of a message, or ignoring it.

As in The Little Prince, where what is essential is invisible to the eye, so in the gospel it is the parts that are not ready accessible which can provide a key to unlocking peoples imagination.” (page 88)

In the current debate about women Bishops in the Church, we would all do well to read pages 92 – 93 of Bob’s reflections on compromise.  In summing up his chapter on “The principles” of ambiguous evangelism, he says,

If I present negotiables as non-negotiables then I have set (my own) sanctification ahead of (other people’s) redemption.” (page 93)

Unfortunately in the Church of England at the moment, we seem unable to agree on what is negotiable and what is not.  If, within the body, we are not clear – how on earth can we engage with an already sceptical world that looks on with astonishment – again, because they do not know or understand what it is we fight over.  We are seen as just fools – as appose to the “fools for Christ” that Bob’s next chapter goes on to explore.  This book is peppered with great illustrations and references, and another appears here.  He quotes something David Attenb0rough says on Desert Island Discs back in 1999,

The best way to get someone interested in a subject is to show a great energy combined with a great ignorance.” (page 99)

Bob goes on to illustrate that Jesus’ own method was to encourage people to search and to be inquisitive (with John’s disciples, Jesus does not produce a PowerPoint presentation explaining how he is “the one”, but asks them to look around and draw conclusions from what they see).

Encouraging wonder will achieve more than our laboured attempts to impart truth.

Please, get this book, refer to it often.  There are many helpful pictures and illustrations that – if you want to be a reflective practitioner in youth ministry – will last you for years.  Don’t just get it and read it, continue to be fed by the ideas and the thoughts it provokes.  This is not always comfortable, but our ability to share the timeless story of God’s relationship with humanity, is greatly enhanced by making the effort.

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