When I look back at our years of church planting in Amsterdam I am struck by a focus that lay close to the heart of our ministry: we felt we needed to know whether or not someone had crossed the line from death to life, from darkness to light.
The theology was that people are in darkness, heading for hell, sinking in the cold waters of death in the same way the victims of the Titanic were sinking so many years ago. It was a question of life and death to provide the way to escape from destruction, but also to know whether a person had made sufficient use of the means of salvation provided to him or her.
Someone would, on the street in Amsterdam, pray the “sinner’s prayer” and make a profession of faith. We would write home about that with great joy – someone had escaped from death into life!
But we were also realistic and we were trying to build a community of believers. So we would see that person be sporadic in church attendance, irregular in pursuing spiritual disciplines, and persistent in continuing a lifestyle that was not in accordance with Biblical norms.
The question would inevitably arise: Was the profession of faith credible? Had the person really passed from death to life?
And so we spent quite a bit of time trying to determine, for the community in general but also in specific instances, what the real indications were that someone had credibly crossed that line.
It was a perfectly logical and necessary thing to do, given our theology. It was a question of life and death.
But it made me uncomfortable:
Was not the motivation for our ministry primarily fear – fear of destruction and hell? And is that the Biblical motive for ministry?
How much of what we did was manipulative, based on fear? (And manipulation is perfectly legitimate when the situation is a matter of life and death. If I am rescuing someone from a burning building, then every possible means is valid.)
Did I really love the person as a person?
Was it right or good for me to make a determination about the person’s spiritual state? Was that my job, and was I capable of doing that?
It felt moralistic to me to judge a person’s heart based on his or her actions. I didn’t want to be a moralist. And wasn’t it a little bit weird to write joyfully home about someone’s conversion and be doubting it a few months later?
Even “friendship evangelism” could never completely convince me that the “friendship” was little more than a method to get to the real and important issues. I was struck by that especially when I finally did have a few “real” friends who were not Christians and whom I was not actively trying to “convert”.
Given the paradigms, what we did was the right and necessary thing.
But why did I feel so uncomfortable while doing it?