We began chatting with polite little words, then I burst in with my crazy love for weddings. “I love the food, the music, family, friends, dancing, décor. It’s a party!” I justified my passion by confidently declaring, “The very first miracle Jesus did was at a wedding.” He was nodding in agreement, but she was blank. “You know, the wedding at Cana,” I paused before blurting out, “the water into wine?” It quickly became awkward and I sadly realized she had no clue what I was talking about.
I was stunned at this amazing fail, a Gospel miss, a bride unaware. How was it possible for this fortysomething woman, brought up in the Bible Belt of East Texas, to have been in church and not know this story? So I did what came natural for me. I stretched over the table and snatched a Bible, flipped open to the second chapter of John and read the story of the wedding at Cana to her and the groom. She was visibly moved by the style, sensitivity and miraculous power of Jesus. I was moved, too, but in a different way. Through this bizarre moment of ignorance, my past frustrations with evangelism suddenly made sense. Something shifted in the load I had been burdened with for so many years. I was stirred.
Later that week I was talking to a group of young adults I met at the coffee house, “I’m curious, have you ever read the stories of Jesus from the Bible- Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” Two of them quickly said, “No, none,” but the third was not sure. “Maybe,” she sang slowly, “like, when I was in grade school or something.” Totally open and willing to chat about it, we dove into a conversation exploring their limited knowledge of Jesus and what it might mean. In the end, all three eagerly agreed to read the Gospels. I was shocked at how simple and non-threatening this conversation was. The tension I normally experienced in this type of setting was not there, and a freedom to simply talk about Jesus seemed to replace it. I became obsessed with asking that simple question. The more I asked, the more it became clear this was my niche.
As the months passed, it became critical for me to find out, how do people know what they know about Jesus? So I intentionally interviewed hundreds of young adults. I was shocked, overwhelmed and strangely embarrassed— not so much by what I found from those out in the world, but from the young adults raised in church. Ninety-five percent of all the millennials I interviewed had never read even one of the Gospels, much less all four. The Jesus of their understanding is cobbled together with scraps of secondhand information and hearsay. These were churched and unchurched people, but I saw little difference between the two.
In a spontaneous moment, I asked my church during our Sunday service, “Is there anyone here brave enough to admit you have never read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” A young women in the back row sheepishly eased up her hand. She had graduated from a local Christian college, attended church her whole life, served in children’s ministry and is a voracious reader. “I am so ashamed to admit it, no, I never have. But I will.” I began a one-man applause, “An honest person! Are there more?” Not that day, but shortly thereafter many did privately confess to having never read Jesus. Disciples who did not know the words of their Master. I found my mission.
After realizing so many young adults had never read even one of the four Gospels, I turned my attention to my own children. My 31-year-old son experienced church from the womb. He heard the stories of Jesus and preaching since before he formed memory or opinion. We homeschooled the early years, then Christian high school and finally Christian college. It’s not as though he had been opposed to God, but the church and all of its trappings became irrelevant. I asked him clearly about his faith through the years but was puzzled by his lack of interest in what I had determined were important spiritual activities.
So I simply asked him if he had ever read any of the Gospels on his own accord. He said, “No, but I will.” Again I was taken by surprise at how positive my challenge was received by almost everyone I asked. Initially he complained of problems retaining print material so I suggested listening while he drove during his work. I gave him Mark and the next day he called, “This is crazy stuff, all these people and even kids with demon possession! Do you think that they had no explanation for psychological phenomena and just blamed it on demons?” I hesitated, then responded, “What do you think? Listen to more and let me know.” Within a short period of time, he asked me for another CD. This went on until he had completed all four Gospels and now was asking for the epistles of Paul. I’m still amazed at how fresh the stories of Jesus are, even to those who have heard them for a lifetime.
The 10-ton elephant in our room is the widespread ignorance of Jesus. Little or no knowledge of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is leading an entire generation to confusion and speculation about the most important man in all of human history. They struggle to trust someone they do not know. Consequently, Christianity has been dismissed by many of them as an irrelevant myth or irrational nonsense. Our baby Jesus has been thrown out with the Christian bath water. Somewhere, buried in the distractions and the confusion of Christianity is a thirty-something, Middle-Eastern Jew from Nazareth, named Jesus.
As I talk with young adults on college campuses and in the marketplace, it has become obvious to me they are more confused about who Jesus is than their Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, or Muslim peers. We would never try to lead someone to faith in Jesus if their thinking was based on the unbiblical Jesus of Jehovah’s Witness teaching. So why do we assume the unbiblical Jesus of the average young adult is any better? I have encountered every alternative, flimsy, internet Jesus idea put up for grabs floating about in the fog of popular campus thought. They seem more than eager to take in these pseudo-intellectual soundbites and file them as historical fact in their Jesus folder.
Jesus has a reputation among the young of being merely a good teacher. Clearly they have not read the outrageous claims made by Jesus about himself, not to mention healing those blind from birth, casting out demons, and raising the dead. The gospels are full of over-the-top supernatural events, not easily overlooked even by the casual reader. The famous quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis sums up the issue. Look at the last few lines in full context.
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
As Christians, we can presume nothing about people in a spiritual way. Rather, we should assume they are lost, backslidden, misinformed, ignorant or worse. Talk with them about Jesus the man, the carpenter, the teacher, and central character of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They will begin to see the King of Kings as they follow the narrative. Thankfully there is no prerequisite faith or spiritual mindset to begin reading. They do not need to believe in God, the divinity of Jesus, trust the reliability of the Bible, agree to any objective truth or even be open to such ideas. If they will agree to read the Gospel stories for any reason, it is a win-win and God’s Spirit will do the heavy lifting. God spoke through the prophet, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)
After four decades of youth and adult ministry I have come to this painful conclusion: ignorance of Jesus is epidemic. We are fervently preaching and witnessing in order to get people to trust Jesus, assuming they have a clear picture of Him. They do not. Secondhand misinformation forms their patchwork idea of Jesus. Reading or hearing the gospel narrative has become necessary to build trust in the Biblical Jesus, not some character created from the internet or personal fantasy. Our faith is based in the Jesus from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the original religious tracts.
My hope is to examine why this has happened and to challenge everyone to read through the Gospel narratives, the only primary sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They can then decide for themselves the validity of the claims made by these stories and make intelligent, well- informed, spiritual conclusions. #readJesus #MattMarkLukeJohn www.primarysourceproject.org