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Osama and Me are Close by Neil Cole

Early in my attempts to develop leaders for church planting, I designed a ministry called The Pastor's Factory. Obviously this was before I started to see church from an organic point of view. At the time, I foolishly wanted to stamp out new leaders in a cookie-cutter manner.

I was mentoring an emerging leader named Bob. He had been in the Viet Nam conflict, then in a biker gang, and now he was a concert promoter who had turned his life over to Jesus. Bob is one of those "larger than life" dudes. He had many stories to tell, each of great interest and drama.

I gave an assignment to the students to develop a vision for reaching lost people. They were first to come up with the vision and then the strategy. Bob came to me very excited one afternoon with a plan that was sure to be powerful.

His idea was to hook up satelite signals so that a single broadcast could be shown around the world simultaneously on huge screens where mass populations could hear a concert and a Gospel presentation. "We could reach the whole world in one night and then Jesus can return!"

Wow! Aside from the expense, translation challenges, and the logistical nightmare, I felt that he was shooting a little too high. I let him explain it all, and I couldn't help but share his enthusiasm, it was so contagious. It was very good to see his heart for the world.

After some time I asked him a more pointed question,

"Bob, has Sally come to know Christ yet?" (Sally was his wife.)

A little sheepish, he said, "No, not yet."

"How about your son?"

"Nah, still prayin' for him."

I said, "What do you say we try to reach your own family first, and we take on global satelites a little further on down the road." He agreed that that was a better first step.

God has uniquely placed us all in relationships for the purpose of bringing Christ closer to people.

Six Degrees of God's Kingdom

In the mid-nineties three college students and a bottle of whiskey came up with a new game which grew to become a cult fad. It is now so well-known that even VISA commercials are capitalizing on it. It is called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

The idea of the game is to link any actor or actress, through the movies they have been in, to the actor Kevin Bacon in less than six steps. For instance, Kevin Bacon links to Kevin Costner in one swift link: both were in JFK. Julia Louis-Dreyfus of TV's Seinfeld, however, takes all six steps to make a chain. She was in Christmas Vacation with Randy Quaid, who was in Major League II with Tom Berenger, who was in Shattered with Greta Scacchi, who was in Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford, who was in Raiders of the Lost Ark with Karen Allen, who was in Animal House with Kevin Bacon.

There are actually websites where you can sharpen your skills. Brett Tjaden, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia, actually figured out the average number of jumps for the more than 250,000 film actors to link to Kevin Bacon and came up with 2.8312 steps. In other words, every actor who has ever acted can be linked to Kevin Bacon in an average of just three steps.

While this game may be amusing, the principle behind it is astounding. According to Dan Selgman in "Me and Monica", the average person has 1500 acquaintances in life, with older and wealthier people tending to exceed that number. Our 1500 acquaintances all begin to overlap in this world of 6.3 billion people. So the theory is that any two people on planet earth can be linked by 5 or fewer intermediaries. Everybody is connected by only six degrees of separation. Unless of course you know my friend Carol Davis, in which case it is only two degrees of separation! It seems she knows everbody and makes the theory seem even more reliable. In fact, it does work that way. There are certain people that God has wired in such a way that they have an exceptional amount of friends and associates. These key people actually reduce the distance of separation between many of us.

The theory works like this: I know a guy, who has a stepsister, whose cousin went to college with this fanatical man who knows where Osama Bin Laden is. Or something like that. The CIA would be all over this, but the key is that you have to know the right six people or the chain does not work. Unfortuantely, it is impossible for us to know who the right six people are to make any precise connection. But that does not mean the connection is not there, you just do not realize it. You are really only a jump or two from some of the most powerful or popular people in the world.

There is one Person who does know the links?all of them. God, in His infinite wisdom and grace, can connect the whole world to one another via a few simple relationships. This adds a whole new meaning to the phrase, "It's a small world." Each person you meet is a doorway to a new world. We never know where this metaphorical door will open to, but God sovereignly leads us to paths He has already preordained. We each have divinely ordained connections through relationships to reach the world. That is a great idea, and it has always been God's plan. The Gospel flies best on the wings of relationships.

However, when we want to reach our community for Christ, our churches usually form committees to come up with some event aimed at attracting people to the church. Evangelistic events are not wrong, but I venture to say they are also not very effective at reaching people for the Kingdom.

I often will take an unofficial survey when speaking to an audience. I will ask people to raise their hands if they accepted Christ anonymously without any relational witness of a respected friend. In other words, you heard a crowd in the stadium and thought the Yankees were playing. Amazed that they were not asking for tickets, you walked in and found it was a Billy Graham Crusade, and you got saved. Or, you were going off to battle and a stranger handed you a Gideon's Bible which you promptly put in your shirt pocket without another thought. In battle a bullet struck you in your chest, but the Bible stopped it from ripping though your flesh and exploding in your heart. When you took out the Bible and opened it you found the bullet stopped at John 3:16 which you read with renewed interest and got saved.

Perhaps a bit over-dramatized, but stories like this are remarkable, and very rare. When I ask people who have stories of anonymous salvation experiences apart from any friendly witness to raise their hands, usually only one or two do so.

Next, I ask people to raise their hands if they accepted Christ because of the faithful witness of a close friend, relative, or associate. The rest of the people always raise their hands. I ask, "So why are we so busy planning attractional events when relationships are actually far more effective?"

The Gospel spread throughout the known world in the first century in a single generation. It did so though relationships...six degrees of relationships.

The word the New Testament often employs to describe our relational communities is the Greek word oikos. Oikos includes a family of words based on the idea of home or household. It is used to refer to the houses people live in and the homes that churches met in, as well as the fact that believers all belong to the household of God. But the usage goes beyond a house with a white picket fence or the nuclear family. At times, a person's oikos is the fundamental natural unit of society including one's family, friends, neighbors, and associates.

Cornelius is instructed by the Lord to gather his household together to hear the Gospel from Peter in Acts 10:22-27. When Peter arrived it was not just Cornelius' immediate family. It says that he entered a large room filled with people. It included Cornelius' family, relatives, slaves, associates, and neighbors--his oikos.

Oikos is one's social web of relationships. It can take the Gospel to some incredible places as the Lord of the harvest does what only He can do.

While in prison in Rome, Paul wrote to the Philippians to let them know that his imprisonment had not hindered the spread of the Gospel (Phil. 1:12). Amazingly enough, it actually opened doors to new worlds of relationships that led even to Caesar's palace. Even some of Caesar's own oikos became believers in Rome (Phil. 4:22). Because Paul was locked up with a Roman guard, he instantly had only two degrees of separation from the most powerful leader in the world. God used that to bring salvation even to Nero's own family.

In much of the world, an oikos is literally a person's household or family. Many cultures, particularly more rural ones, have a family as the basic unit of society. In more urban and suburban societies, people do not build their social lives around family but instead around homogeneous interests. A person's oikos may not consist of blood relatives but of people who share common interests, hobbies, or employment.

In the sermons Jesus gave us teaching us how to start the Kingdom epidemic, He used oikos as the context for the spread. In Luke 10:5-7, He said (oikos, translated as "house" is in bold for emphasis):

"When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.' If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house."

The Lord of the Harvest has directed us to the oikos to spread the Kingdom of God. This is, in fact, the way of spreading the Gospel most put forth in the New Testament. It appears that the Lord over the harvest has indeed set us up in a particular oikos for the reason of reaching people that do not know Him yet.

Paul spoke to an audience of Greek philosophers and brought a great enlightenment to God's intentional influence through the six degrees of separation on a global scale. He said:

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." (Acts 17:25-27)

The Scriptures tell us that God intentionally placed us in certain relational contexts by His providence. He did so that we may be close to finding Him. It makes sense that this is God's design to reach the world.

One day I was asked to speak at Fuller Seminary about developing leaders for missions and church planting. This was the first time I was presented with such an opportunity, so I was very honored...even a little full of myself. During the day I received a message from a relative that her son lay dying in the hospital, and she wanted to know if I would go visit with him. I barely knew him, but we were family. Being the only "pastor" in the family, I was the obvious one to call in a moment like this.

The problem was that I received the call late in the day and was on the other side of Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon. The traffic would be unbearable. I decided that I just wanted to go home, so I did not want to return the call. I would call the next day. On my way to the car, however, the Holy Spirit had another idea. He began to show me that I would drive all this way to speak about evangelism, but that I was not willing to drive far to actually do the work. Ouch! I got the point, and I called my relative.

The drive was only 25 minutes, which seemed miraculous to me. It was grace abounding more where sin did abound. I visited Gary and stayed for almost an hour. He was unable to communicate. I was not even sure he could hear me, but I read the whole Gospel of Mark to him, and led him in a prayer to welcome Jesus as his King and Savior. Then I went home, grateful that the Holy Spirit would not leave me in my selfish ways.

But this was not the end of the story. A week later I received another call. Gary had passed away, and I was asked to lead his memorial service at the beach. It happened to be at the very beach where I used to be a lifeguard. Over 100 people came to remember Gary, and I was able to share the Good News of the Kingdom with 100 people that I would never have met in the normal course of life. Two lifeguards I used to work with daily and had not seen in some years also stood by and listened. It was a shock for them to see someone they used to see every day on the beach in uniform in a whole new light.

The call I received that Friday afternoon when I was not alert to spiritual things was not just to come and share with one dying man, but with over 100 dying souls. Each person is a door for the Kingdom to enter into a new oikos. This same relative has already had me share at two other funerals to hundreds of others. God sees these connections, and we do not; that is why we must move forward in faith and obedience. We may stumble upon something incredible if we do.

If a changed life is the result and the contagion of the Kingdom, then, of course, a relational community is the best place for the Kingdom to spread. The changed life is most noticed by those who know the new convert.

If we examine the New Testament, we will see how quickly the Gospel spreads from oikos to oikos. The following examples all describe the spread of the Gospel through relations in the context of a person's oikos in the book of Acts. In each case, the Gospel infected a whole household/ oikos:

• Cornelius (Acts 10:2; 11:13-15)
• Lydia (Acts 16:15)
• The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-34)
• Crispus, the leader of the Synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:7-9)

This idea is not only the way that Jesus prescribed for us to reach the world, it is also His own practice. He leads by example. His own cousin (John the Baptist) introduced Jesus to Andrew who then brought his brother Simon (later called Peter) to Jesus. Peter was instrumental in bringing James and John Zebedee to Christ. These all became part of the core team of leaders Jesus mentored for a global movement of the Kingdom. It began in His own oikos and spread via other people's oikos. Jesus had the capability to reach masses in events that would put our own efforts to shame, but He always shied away from that form of outreach and invested in oikos relationships that could multiply and spread. He is our example.

The keys to evangelism as practiced in churches today have focused on creative turns of a phrase to bring a conversation to the Gospel or correct answers to defend our beliefs. In Jesus' pattern, relationships are the context, and the keys to sharing are quite different. Within the context of our oikos the following are keys to being a strong witness:

• Time and availability
• A transformed life
• Hospitality
• Spiritual intuition-which requires listening carefully, to others and to the Holy Spirit.
• Generosity

While God has made the oikos the most natural setting in which to be a witness, it can also be a difficult spiritual environment, particularly for those who have been believers for a long time. Jesus said, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household." (Mark 6:4) Sometimes our own relatives are the hardest to reach. Jesus Himself had to rise from the dead to convince His brothers of His true identity. It may take something dramatic for their hearts to be open to our story of redemption. Pray, and God will do things for our family members which we cannot.

If we can begin to see the Gospel spread relationally, then the new believer's dramatic change of life will be a strong witness in their oikos. For some of us, we need to look to the oikos of others rather than our own. We can pray and hope that one day God will do something dramatic to open the hearts of our own family and relatives much as He did in Jesus' own oikos. I do not suggest that we wait for a great response from our own oikos. When you move on to another oikos, you are not abandoning your family, you are leaving them in better hands. You will know when the right time comes to renew your witness. While you wait for God to soften hearts in your own family, you might as well be looking for other opportunities to relationally bring the Kingdom to other oikos.

Usually the pattern is that your own family will either be transformed soon after your own salvation, or it will take a lifetime. In either case, God loves your family and will pursue them.

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