The following reflection was written by David Prieb who serves as a member of the Servants team located in Canada’s poorest urban neighborhood, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
A few years back I sent out an update letter about the “What the Hell” Bible studies that I had been helping to facilitate while treeplanting in Canada. About a year later I got an email from my friend Carl, who was writing a book about unique ways of sharing Jesus with those around us. I shared with him the story, and he decided to publish it! The book is called Speaking of Jesus—the Art of Not Evangelism.
I will tell a bit of the story that is included within the book…
A few years ago I was up in northern Canada planting trees. I was one of about 35 planters in my camp, and each day we’d go into the “blocks” to reforest the land, planting about 3,000 trees per person per day. No matter what the weather conditions were like, we were always trying to plant as quickly as possible since we got paid by the tree, not by the hour. After a hard day’s work we would get back in the trucks, return to our bush camp, and repeat the whole process the next day.
Treeplanting, being such an odd and unique job, tends to attract a very unique and diverse group of people—and my camp that summer of 2009 was no exception. As we came together people brought their habits and hang-ups with them, and the camp was soaked with a lot of alcohol and drugs, foul-language, and sex. But in the midst of this environment Jesus proved to me that He still is attractive and drawing people towards Himself.
I get to know people quite easily, and as I shared my life with my coworkers I found that many of them absolutely hated religion, especially Christianity. They would tell me story after story about how they felt judged and rejected by Christians…especially when Christians would pull the “you’re going to hell” card on them. It seemed that whenever one of my “rough around the edges” treeplanting friends would go to church, they felt unwelcomed and excluded.
But even though my friends were repulsed by institutional religion, I discovered that many of them loved to engage in conversations about purpose, fulfillment, and living passionately. They would talk about how in their own ways they were trying to make the world a better place. Even though these folks were turned off to religion, I found them turned on to spirituality, and I discovered that many of their views and ideas lined up with much of what Jesus had to say.
So I began thinking…how could we create an environment where we could talk about Jesus and His Way, but without all the “churchy” stuff that makes my treeplanting buddies cringe and turn away?
Then an idea began to form. I began to think about why I personally was drawn to Jesus, as well as some of the questions that I ask myself as I read through the gospels. At this time of my life my eyes were really being opened up to just how radical Jesus’ words were, and at times it got me quite frustrated. Often when reading the Bible I would be thinking “Jesus, what the hell does this mean?”
That was it! By looking at scripture from that perspective—What the hell did Jesus say, and then how the hell do we live it out—I thought my coworkers might be able to get over some of their religious hang-ups and engage with the text.
There were a few other Christian guys in camp, and I asked them about the idea. Their initial thought was “No way! We can’t do something like that…” But the more I explained my motivations behind it they agreed to join me in this little experiment.
The next day, I informed people that after dinner a group of us would be meeting around the fire pit for “What the Hell.” I got a lot of confused, yet intrigued looks…”What the hell are we going to do?” was the usual response. “Just come and see. No guarantees, but I think you’ll like it.”
That evening about 15 people were gathered round the fire. I got everyone’s attention, and held up a Bible. I could tell a few people were a bit uneasy about where I might take the conversation…
“Right here in this group, we have a lot of different perspectives and ideas about this book. For some of you, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Others might view it as a good book of advice, and still some others might view this book as evil and probably wish I would just toss it in the fire! But no matter what position you find yourself holding, it’s hard to deny the fact that most people around the world would consider the Bible to hold practical truth and wisdom. So here is my challenge to you all—let’s see if they’re right. What if we would come together once a week and read some of the words of Jesus, and let’s see if the stuff He says actually makes sense in today’s world. Let’s read the text from a critical perspective, asking ourselves “What the hell did Jesus say? And how the hell do we live this stuff out?” As we read together I’m not exactly sure what will come of it…some of us may discover that the words of Jesus add direction and purpose to our lives, while others may receive confirmation that the Bible is outdated, impractical, and serves no purpose. But no matter what the end result, I think all of us will benefit in some way by listening to some of the advice, stories, and parables that Jesus offers us.”
I asked for people’s thoughts, and I found that people were not only open to the idea, they were excited! Together we brainstormed some of the topics or stories that we might want to read at future “What the Hell” gatherings. People threw out all kinds of ideas…even the more “un-churched” guys came up with ideas as they thought about some of the things they had heard about Jesus.
We met together about 6 or 7 times that summer. We would read stories such as the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son, and also discuss what Jesus said about certain topics, such as wealth, possessions, and loving your enemies. Our discussions were generally quite lively, as many people were eager to share their views about what Jesus said. I did not see myself as the “leader” of the group, per say, but more as a facilitator—attempting to keep the conversation on track and allowing all opinions and ideas to be heard. At times it seemed our discussions would go way of course, but somehow it seemed we were always able to bring it back in the end.
As we continued our “What the Hell” Bible studies, I noticed that for many people they were beginning to see Jesus for the first time. And not only did they see him, but they were attracted to Him, and they began to realize that his words make sense. When we read the story of the Good Samaritan people came to the conclusion that Jesus wants us to have our eyes opened up to those hurting around us, and that we should be willing to help them, even if it is costly to us. That message resonated with them, and they thought Jesus was wise to instruct his followers in that way. We read verses such as “Don’t build up your treasures here on earth, for where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” These verses relating to wealth were fascinating to the group, and we all concluded that Jesus words were spot on—that there was something almost inherent with wealth and possessions that causes us to lose focus on what important in life.
One of the most powerful evenings was when we read the passages about not judging from Matthew 7, and then we flipped over to John 8 and read the story about the woman caught in adultery. It was amazing to see my friends realize that Jesus risked his life to stand alongside the woman. Even though she was deemed unclean and sinful Jesus risked his life, stepped in front of the stone throwers, and stood beside her. This story represented “real life” for many of my treeplanting friends. For many of them, they identified with the woman—the one that was considered sinful—and they often felt that religious people were surrounding them, with their stones of condemnation ready. But as the story unfolds you find that Jesus does not pick up a rock and join the religious mob, but rather joins the woman (the sinful one), and binding his fate with hers, challenging the crowd by exposing the sins of “holy” Pharisees. Then, after this powerful display of solidarity that Jesus says, “Go, and sin no more.” For the group to realize that Jesus was standing with the sinner, not the religious church goers, was a powerful revelation.
As people found themselves drawn to Jesus’ words, one question that often surfaced was “Why don’t Christians believe this stuff?” I actually really enjoyed it when observations like this were made. I think it can be healthy for people to realize that the path of Jesus is not necessarily synonymous with the “path of Christianity.” But when this question arose I would always try to emphasize that although there is a lot of hypocrisy inside the church, we need to admit that there’s a lot within us as well. We are all pretending in some area, and as we live our lives our walk doesn’t always match our talk. So the point ends up being to remove the hypocrisy in our own lives, rather than trying to point out the hypocrisy in others (and being able to relate this back to the passage we had studied about “the plank in your own eye” was certainly helpful!).
I consider myself fortunate to have been able to participate in the What the Hell Bible studies. It was a very life-giving and energizing experience. As I saw people being attracted and drawn to Jesus, I found myself being more and more drawn to Him as well. Along with the millions of trees our camp replanted that summer, there were also many “seeds” planted in people’s hearts. I pray that these seeds would continue to grow and that all of us, including myself, would continue to be attracted and drawn towards Jesus.