Mark as Gospel: Preface

During one of our less gratifying fund-raising experiences, the committee reviewing the team lined us up and asked each member how many people we had baptized. I looked self-consciously down at my belt to find not even a hint of a notch. The implication was clear: “You expect us to send you to evangelize in a foreign land when you don’t even do it right here?” It was a question already bouncing around in my own heart, though, causing no little indigestion. I had heard often enough that aspiring missionaries shouldn’t expect the mission field to be the cure for a lifestyle devoid of evangelization. 

It was worrisome, to say the least. 

As I reflected upon my own life, I became keenly aware that no one had shown me how to evangelize. I’d benefitted from countless models of discipleship, I’d learned well to imitate others as they imitated Christ, but no one had demonstrated personal evangelism in an intentional way. Sure, there was intentionality to “being a living testimony,” that only gets us so far. St. Francis of Assisi supposedly said, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” Whoever actually came up with it, it’s a fine expression, especially since we’re sometimes prone to be all talk and no walk. Yet, like it or not, we have to use words at some point. Our gospel is “news,” and we must speak accordingly. Aside from the invitation at the end of a sermon or the previous generation’s “gospel meetings,” however, I had no model for proclaiming the news. 

The whole matter was even more complicated by my church tradition’s terrible misdefining of the gospel as a series of steps to be taken in order to attain forgiveness of sin. Aside from the fact that such an explanation of the gospel is mis- leading (though I might use a stronger adjective), it was intuitively inadequate. Thanks to the godly men and women who had discipled me, what I found experientially to be the substance of the gospel’s goodness was something quite different than the “five steps of salvation.” I simply never found myself in a personal conversation where talking about “the plan of salvation” made sense. Maybe you have, but the many conversations I’ve had about faith and religion haven’t gone that way. I find that people who really want to talk about God have deeply important needs and concerns that well up from the core of their being, to which the gospel of my church tradition is a flippant and shabby response. Another way of saying this is that when a genuine human conversation is at issue, a personal engagement that isn’t merely aiming at getting that notch on the belt or a name on the role, it’s rather difficult to introduce in any genuine, uncontrived way a pat system of conversion steps as God’s blessed will for creation. That’s my experience at least. It was not a great shock, therefore, when I learned that the actual good news wasn’t even remotely comparable with that well-worn check-list. 

The wonderful thing about my church tradition is its instinct to go to the Bible in every circumstance. I knew that for me, proclaiming the good news would have to be done in symphony with reading scripture. But even when I could imagine transitioning a conversation into a Bible study, I wasn’t sure what that would look like in lieu of jumping from proof-text to proof-text in order to proclaim the salvation checklist. Then I found myself sitting in “Christianity in the 21st Century,” listening to Dr. Monte Cox explain how he used a study of the book of Mark as his primary means of evangelism. It was one of those moments when something makes so much sense, it’s unbelievable that it hadn’t occurred to you before. 

The simple truth is that evangelism is like everything else in discipleship. We learn by being taught and following examples. Christianity is “the Way,” a lifestyle, a manner of being and doing on the path behind Jesus. As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of personal evangelism going on in the churches with which I’m most familiar, and I believe that this is the case not for lack of will--there are in fact many bad consciences among us on account of frustrated conviction. Nor is it because most Christians are basically timid, mired in postmodern relativism, or convinced that evangelism is the ministers’ job or someone else “gift”. Those are answers that arise in the wake of our frustration. Rather, it is mostly, I believe, for lack of how. We need to be discipled in evangelism; though we may prefer it were a natural, spontaneous overflow of our faith, it is rarely so. We must be taught. There are many aspects of evangelism that I will not deal with here, though they also need patterns and models to practice. My goal is more modest: I would like to make the study of Mark available as a practical tool that might fill part of the void experienced by others with struggles similar to mine. 

As I was finishing undergrad. and getting ready for grad. school, my friend and mentor Dr. Randy Willingham offered a piece of advise:You cannot go deep into everything, so pick a book of the Bible and get to know it better than anything else. The purpose of doing this is that in-depth knowledge of one book serves as a filter for everything else you have to deal with on a shallower level of familiarity. I’ve a more of a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” disposition naturally, though, and as it turns out, that is precisely what “liberal arts education” and “masters of divinity” both mean. So, I didn’t expect to put this advise to very good use. Happily, it turned out otherwise. I had already taken “Life of Christ,” “Seminar in the Synoptic Gospels”, and “Synoptics Gospels” (Greek text) in undergrad., and I managed to take “Synoptic Gospels” and “Gospel of Mark” in grad. school as well. I was’t really planning this course, but looking back now I believe it was one of those providential mixtures of predilection and coincidence. The synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk, in case the terminology is new to you) aren’t one book, but it was a narrowing of focus at any rate. By now, Mark in particular has become a familiar friend, serving the function that Randy had hoped. I owe much to my teachers. To Randy, your advise was, as ever, well given. To Drs. Cochran, Neller, Pollard, and Black, thank you. Your ministry is shaping the church in Arequipa. To Dr. Cox, we’d all be better off if you were writing this study guide! 

As a final note, I should say that there is no silver bullet for “successfully” sharing faith. This study is not a gimmick. In a post-Christendom world, verbal testimony, if it is to be of any value, must virtually always be predicated upon trust and friendship. Our living testimony of love and service is indispensable. Furthermore, every context makes its own particular demands upon us. I write this study guide in light of my experiences in Arequipa, Peru. Yet, the emphases we choose and the implications we draw out may vary from culture to culture and occasion to occasion. Fidelity to Mark’s intentions places boundaries on our reading of the text, but the need to contextualize the message calls for each reader’s sensitivity to the present situation and the Spirit’s guidance. Thanks be to God for the men who gave us the stories of Jesus, for there is no better news in all the world.