Ever heard of Augustine of Hippo?
“Few people today would doubt that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the greatest writer of the early Christian church. Certainly, he has left us more books than anyone else. For centuries, most of the Western Church took its understanding of Christian doctrine from him, and his influence lingers even today.”
(Gerald Bray, Christian History & Biography, October 1, 2003 )
I recently discovered a key event in Augustine’s journey to Jesus.
“A turning point for Augustine was hearing the story (of Jesus) from a man whom he respected intellectually and who treated Augustine as a human being, not as an enemy to be defeated. Augustine recalled his initial experience with Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
‘This man of God received me (Augustine) like a father and, as bishop, told me how glad he was that I had come. My heart warmed to him, not at first as a teacher of the truth, which I had quite despaired of finding in your Church, but simply as a man who showed me kindness. I listened attentively when he preached to the people.'”
(Daniel Taylor, Tell Me A Story, St. Paul, MN: Bog Wog Press, 2001,p.87)
Two things struck me about Augustine’s encounter with Ambrose. First, Ambrose didn’t treat Augustine as an enemy to conquered. His approach was not adversarial. And secondly, Ambrose treated Augustine with kindness. Ambrose could teach us a thing or two about ministering in our post-modern world.
Too often, we in the conservative church have approached evangelism with an adversarial spirit, using programmes and abstract propositional truths as our main weapons. This approach may have met with some success in another age. They look increasingly ineffective in this one.
I am not questioning our commitment to absolute truth as revealed by God through the Scriptures. Nor am I disputing the exclusive claims of Christ as the only way back to the Father. But what we must ask in today’s pluralistic and post-modern world is, how do we help people hear the truth?
As a cynical intellectual, pre-conversion Augustine would have been very at home in our age. His awakening to the truth of Christ gives us a significant clue as to how we should reach out to people today. Augustine’s heart and mind was engaged by “a man who showed him kindness.”
I enjoy hearing the stories of how people come to follow Jesus. Many of these stories include references to encounters with a Christian who cared, believers who showed kindness. Indeed, as Francis Schaeffer reminded us, love is the final apologetic. And the divine pattern.
God demonstrated His kindness to the Jews by rescuing them from slavery in Egypt — before He invited them to enter into a covenant relationship with Him. Jesus came feeding the hungry and healing the sick even as He called people back to the kingship of God. (He reserved His harshest words for the religious leaders who should have known better.) Indeed while we were yet sinners Jesus died for us and it is on the basis of this ultimate sacrifice of love that He calls us to follow Him. In a post-modern age, indeed in any age, the divine pattern is to lead with love.
The danger is that we reduce love to a technique. We show love to people so that they will turn to the gospel. If love is a technique it is definitely not a very efficient one. No guarantees here. Jesus had His Judas. Many wolf down God’s offerings of love but bite the hand that feeds them. And while some, like Augustine, have responded positively to love, many have not. Indeed love, by its very nature cannot be reduced to a technique.
If love is not a technique, what then it is? It is a demonstration of the character of God. 1 John 4:7b-8 says:
“Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (TNIV)
When we lead with kindness, when we genuinely care for people, we are demonstrating something of the God who dwells in us.
A fallen humanity, whether they realize it or not, longs to reconnect with the God who is love. Unfortunately many want to do so on their terms and therefore cannot find their way home. But the longing is still there.
And so when people experience kindness, it awakens a memory of a Love they were created to receive. And so intellectual and non- intellectual alike respond to experiences of kindness.
This is some thing so basic yet often missed by the church. We pour so much energy in perfecting our evangelistic programmes when we should be helping our people grow in Christ likeness and in charity. Or worse we try to shock and awe people into the Kingdom by impressive buildings, numbers, programmes and the cleverness of our arguments, when we should be encouraging our folks to make simple acts of kindness a lifestyle.
More than ever, we need to follow John, who loved because He first loved us (1John 4:19). Now is the time for kindness.