In speaking at conferences for the last couple of decades, I’ve consistently been asked the question “What’s different about the way you speak?” People often couldn’t put their finger on it. As I tried to clarify early on, I didn’t know how to respond but it began to be clearer. When I referenced Jesus, it wasn’t set as a narrative-reporting style. I did not say who Jesus was, and this was what Jesus did; I brought it into the present and said this is who Jesus is and this is what Jesus does.
I’ve just completed my 32nd year as a grad school prof and worked the last 9 years exclusively with the doctoral students at Nyack Alliance Theological Seminary. As our students go through the program, again we are often faced with comments and questions—
“This is different than I’ve gotten in all my other theological education.”
“This is a very different way of preaching.”
“This is a different way of communicating the best of who he is as Messiah.”
Just one of the keys would be that of principlization. Paul Kaiser in his classic book, Toward and Exegetical Theology, frames the concept of principlization. He says, “It’s a timeless truth, it transcends time and culture. Generations, and even religious and theological implications. The timeless truth takes the basic concept or the actual truth and moves it from there and then into the here and the now in one timeless enduring truth.”
It’s not the reporting style, wherewith a narrative we describe all that was, and then attempt to make some type of transfer of application into current life. Rather, it’s a principle that transcends time and culture by itself, hence the term, principlization. Additionally, the primary key in communicating 21st century Jesus is this simple term, who he is and what he does, not who he was and what he did.
About a decade ago, I was asked to do a three-month interim leadership position at an international church in Western Australia. I think while I was there, the congregation and audience was comprised of people from 45 countries, and at one point, we counted up that 77 people had doctorates of some sort. It was a unique crowd. When I arrived, I just thought that I was there to help with some consulting, some coaching, and to be the primary communicator on Sunday. I quickly discovered it was far more than that.
After the first week of me speaking on Sunday, there was quite a buzz. It was a good, healthy organization and church, it had a significant impact where very few men, especially, would ever go to a church service. At that time, I think the statistics were less than half of 1% men in Western Australia would attend a church service of any type of any given year. It may have been one of the greatest unchurched places for men, in any place in the world, outside of the Middle East.
By the 2nd week, things really began to happen: almost awkwardly so. People were coming up even in the coffee hour after the service and saying, “This feels like revival”. I would laugh and say, “No no, this is just kind of a refreshing of what God is doing. Let’s experience it, enjoy it. Let’s just see what happens.”
By the 3rd week, we had 7 young physicians at the end of a service without even an intention of doing anything. They all came to faith in Christ, all 7 from some other world religion, and a woman from Hindu background left the church physically and came back and said she was feeling like God was drawing her. It made for interesting conversations, because the visible outcomes were so different.
The elders called for a meeting, as they should, and asked a simple question: “What is this?”
I said, “You need to grapple with this, this isn’t a question that has an answer. Grapple with this.”
They said, “Well, it’s sort of a difference between modernist thinking and post-modern.”
I said, “Sure, keep going. There’s more.”
They said, “Well, it’s sort of a world view has been natural, even with faith, and this feels supernatural”, and I said, “Yeah, that’s okay, there’s probably more to it than that.”
And they talked about it forever, and finally I said, “This shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it’s almost as if I’m doing a series through the Gospels for 2 months. I’m describing Jesus for who he is and what he does, and my sense is, you are used to a narrative-reporting style that describes Jesus for who he was and what he did.” There was an uncomfortably long silence among those nine elders, who I think came from 7 different countries or culture groups.
After the uncomfortably long silence, someone spoke up and said, “It really is that simple, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Why haven’t we thought this through before?”
“You need to grapple with that, but also grapple with the question: where do you go from here?”
I was to be there for 3 months. At a meeting after 10 weeks, the descriptions were this: “There have been people coming to a personal faith in Christ every week.” It was not common there in that place—many of the people were from different places and cultures. Particularly the young and educated were coming for big life transitions—many of them young physicians in med-school, others working on advanced graduate, and even doctoral studies; that was the norm of what was happening. We saw prayer sessions with hundreds showing up and saw significant healings—it was a refreshing of the Spirit that Jesus brings, very simply that’s all it was. It’s the difference between this is who Jesus is and this is what Jesus does, rather than this is who Jesus was and this is what he did.
A couple of suggestions: When you read the gospel narratives again, watch the profound uniqueness of Jesus Christ and see yourself in the pictures, the narratives. Don’t read them as historic fact; read them as if you’re in the narrative yourself. And then, as you have a chance, live, speak, model and approach life in the same way. Later in the newer testament, it is Paul who says “For me to live is Christ.” Let this be true of you. This is who Jesus is, this is what he does. This is who he is in my life, this is what he does in me, with me, through me. Enjoy it!