Question: For an evangelical, how important are symbols in evangelism and discipleship of Christians?
I must confess that my views on the importance of symbols advocating for, and discipling people in, the Christian faith have evolved over the course of my Christian life.
I was reared, converted, and discipled in a strong “free church” tradition (Southern Baptist) in which I confessionally and happily remain today. However, growing up in that tradition, I was taught to look askance at the various celebrations and observances of the Christian calendar beyond Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter as “smacking of Roman popery” and thus, to be avoided at all costs. The local church in which I spent the first 18 years of my life had a view of Christian history post-Old Testament that went from the birth of Jesus, the end of the apostolic era, with vague references to the “Constantinian synthesis” in the early fourth century. Then, there was a dark void of “historic, worldly compromise” which commenced correction when Martin Luther ignited the flame of the Reformation in 1517. Added to this truncated reading of Christian history (which leaves out Augustine and Aquinas, just to name two spiritual giants of Christian history) this interpretation of Christian history viewed Baptists as being “completed Protestants.” Since the goal of the Reformation was to recover the primitive biblical pattern of the Christian church in the New Testament, then the other reformers fell by the wayside along the way for various reasons. And the Baptists are the only ones who made it all the way back to the first century pattern of autonomous local churches consisting of baptized believers who had made a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. I heard my pastors say from the pulpit on more than one occasion, “If you dropped every church in the New Testament into the average American city today and described it, people would say, ‘Well that’s a Baptist church. Now the church at Corinth used to be a Baptist church until it was removed from fellowship because they became Pentecostal.’”
I first began to be liberated from this truncated understanding of Christian history when I went to college, already having committed my life to pastoral ministry in a Southern Baptist context. While at Princeton as an undergraduate, under the tutelage of a wonderful teacher and mentor, the great Paul Ramsey, I was exposed for the first time to the rich and deep heritage of Christian theology and social teaching within Catholicism, both leading up to (Augustine, Aquinas, etc.) and following (Rerum novarum and Centesimus annus, etc.) the Reformation. I realized I could benefit greatly from this rich tradition and heritage without compromising any of my Baptist convictions and have done so repeatedly over the years since.
In recent years this has expanded to a new appreciation for the evangelizing and pedagogical uses of symbols, including at least the five events in the Christian liturgical calendar that most Evangelicals recognize and at least to some degree follow: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.
Since I have been a professor, among other things, most of the past fifty years, I have also come to deeply appreciate in new and significant ways how powerful symbols can be both in evangelizing and discipling students of every age. In doing so, I must confess to being “a little slow on the uptake.” After all, I was personally led to my conversion experience to the Christian faith through the “Wordless Book” in a back-yard “Good News Club” sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship with my mother as my teacher in my own back-yard. Obviously, the “Wordless Book” is evangelizing and discipling with symbols: black for sin, red for the blood of Christ, white for that blood washing away the guilt of my sin, gold for the streets of gold in heaven symbolizing our final destiny as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Richard Land