Many Christians today look at our current moral, political and environmental conditions and conclude and post on social media that we must be close to our “end hour.” Better yet, I’ve heard many claim this is the “Eleventh Hour.” To this idea, there is a crucial parable that not only addresses this concept of the “Eleventh Hour” but shows what we should be doing because of it. That understanding is both a roadmap to true cultural transformation and also a beacon that reveals just how far away from our responsibilities we are today.
From that lens I will unpack what I am calling “eleventh-hour evangelism;” uncover its critical historical need; address its (currently) counter-intuitive approach; and expose the honorable and humbling position this group has been given.
Pardon the long verse read, but it’s necessary to this understanding.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour… and said, ‘You also go into the vineyard and whatever is right I will give you.’… Again, he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” (Matt. 20: 1- 7, NASB)
From the central point of view, the spotlight of the parable appears to focus on the amount of work each group completed contrasted with their equal pay at the end of the day. Affirming this central lesson, the parable ends (except in the King James and New King James versions) with Jesus asserting that the “last shall be first, and the first last.”
For years, I heard numerous sermons giving me hope that should I have an alcoholic, philandering, God-hating distant relative, his or her death-bed repentance meant the same salvation as someone like my grandfather, a multi-decade, self-styled missionary and builder of countless churches in other nations. But extending the camera lens back a little wider, a far more universal and historically relevant finding is uncovered.
A VERY UNIQUE HOUR
Based on the limited information in this passage, we first find a central character (a landowner) and an opportunity (working in his vineyard). Any opportunity needs those able to fulfill it, so the landowner travels to the marketplace to do some recruiting. In the early morning, he hires the passage’s most skilled negotiators and sends them into his vineyard. Though wage is not specifically discussed, he offers a similar opportunity to those standing in the marketplace on the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours. As the workday concludes, the men, some more exhausted than others, line up for compensation. To the surprise of the early-hour workers, each group receives the same wage. We clearly are shown and then even told that the first and the last were on equal footing;
But shifting the focus toward the periphery of the story, something very unique happens in the eleventh hour. The eleventh-hour group didn’t just head out into the vineyard. They had to be engaged. The previous four groups heard the offer, recognized some form of compensation, and went. For the eleventh-hour group, employment called for a new method. The eleventh-hour required interactive dialogue.
Eschatology aside, I believe that we are living in an eleventh-hour society. In response, it is time for a new paradigm in evangelism. What saved us, whether in the first, third, sixth or ninth hour, won’t have the same impact on this eleventh-hour society. It is not merely new first- to ninth-hour evangelism tactics, but a new methodology of evangelism that should be explored. Its genesis is a radical paradigm shift from “cultural relevance” to “cultural engagement.”
ELEVENTH-HOUR ASPECTS AND APPLICATION
“… [A]nd about the eleventh hour he went and found others standing around….”
ASPECT 1: The eleventh-hour group had been standing in the same marketplace as the previous four groups. The eleventh-hour group was not disconnected from the previous four groups. They were an essential part of the equation.
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION: The church must recognize that despite ideological bias, deviant behavior or gross character flaw, every individual is first and foremost made in the image of God. One of the problems with our past forms of evangelism is that we see non-Christians as “sinners” first, rather than as unique and infinitely special images of God. While the church recognizes itself as God’s children, it fails to see the large portions of humanity as God’s creations. Good-intended Christians often look down on those unable to break addictive habits; those engaged in deviant actions; or those with ideological or gender preferences other than their own.
We rarely see the pain of an individual’s past story over the moral misbehavior of the moment. Our banner-waving animosity toward certain groups of humanity specifically, and even intentionally, strips them of their “image of God” heritage. This is a gross failure. To see any one of God’s images with disgust, disdain or hatred is actually to view them through satanic lenses. It is the devil that hates humanity, and by taking any such attitude, regardless of whatever ideological, moral or character flaws any person may have, we actually partner with his agenda.
The eleventh-hour evangelism method is not to condone “sinful” behavior, but to understand it tactically as a strategy against individuals and ultimately humanity. It is recognizing the difference between identity and actions. Ideology, religion or even claimed sexual preference does not determine one’s identity. It merely helps to affect and shape one’s actions. Everyone is made in the image of God. Actions produce consequences often harmful to the individual, the generations, and the society, stripping away at the soul and spirit, often through the destruction of the body.
By acknowledging how particular actions, and specifically their consequence, play out on humanity, shifts the church’s reaction to “sins” from moral superiority to concern for the well-being of humanity. The church’s focus in this eleventh hour should be the evidential damage caused to those made in God’s image, not merely the immoral damage caused by sinners. A recent Barna poll showed the leading concern among modern evangelicals was the need for stronger moral value in America, but until the church recognizes why God established certain moral or dogmatic boundaries, it is merely driving a deeper wedge between itself and the eleventh-hour society. That is not how the landowner engaged…
“…[A]nd he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’”
ASPECT 2: Eleventh-hour conversation began with selfless, inquisitive interaction. The beginning of the eleventh-hour dialogue began with a question motivated not out of control, but out of concern: ‘Why are you still here? What is it about this message that hasn’t drawn you in yet?” The modern church holds numerous summits and roundtables in search of the best tactics to “win” or “entertain” people into its doors. From multimedia presentations, to outside fairs and festivals and even extreme sports expositions, the church attempts to bring in the disinterested masses, only to “bait and switch” attendees into hearing about what they are missing. Instead, the church should be asking society: “What are we missing?”
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION: The church must shift its evangelistic approach from speaking — to listening and acting. Instead of preaching at “the lost,” the church must engage God’s image first. It must meet the eleventh-hour group at its point of need; first finding out what those needs are and then partnering with the group to see those needs addressed. Due to the church’s apparent disconnect with this eleventh-hour society, it should not be surprised that the first dialogue of needs may not be soul level.
The eleventh-hour group is looking for alleviation to situations that are, by default (and by intent), harming the soul. Through self-centered, pleasure-first methodologies and advertising, isolative technologies, and impersonal ideologies, the eleventh-hour populous has erected powerful self-sufficient barricades choking out the value and need of the soul. In doing so, it is decimating the body and the mind. Currently more than 36 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder or fear; 25 percent of the populous has some form of venereal disease; one in four women has been raped or molested; cancer and diabetes wrack humanity; addiction in a myriad of forms is a staple of society; and poverty and indebtedness plague multi-millions.
Our eleventh-hour society is looking for those who can address issues such as these. How can we be so sure? They are flocking en masse to the false saviors of pharmacology, entertainment, government, and co-opted mysticism. Because of the church’s growing pharisaical nature, the eleventh-hour group may not currently want anything to do with the Christian’s God, but they are desperate to rid themselves of the consequences of a godless society. Our relativistic society propagates its actions through the subjective mantra, “I can do anything I want.” Yet it loathes the damaging objective consequence it cannot control. It will go anywhere it can to get relief without judgmentalism. Which leads to the next aspect:
“He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’”
ASPECT 3: The landowner recognized the eleventh-hour group’s personal sense of self-satisfaction, but was certain he could offer something better. When the landowner speaks to the eleventh-hour group, he asks them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” The word “standing” is the Hebrew term ‘Histemi;’ its definition includes “standing firm, continued safe and sound, of quality” and “unhesitating.” The eleventh-hour group personally considered standing unemployed in the marketplace beneficial to them. The landowner first and foremost recognizes their personal sense of self-satisfaction and security.
He also is fully confident in his own offer. The Hebrew term for “idle” is “argos,” which translates as “careless, useless or lazy.” After acknowledging their perception of their market place idleness as “of quality and secure,” he tells them that in reality it has been useless. Such a bold declaration requires absolute certainty in his particular offer and leads to a two-tiered application.
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION 1: The church’s failure to engage culture at its place of need has produced highly enjoyable and holistically satisfying technological and ideological competition. Because of the supposed lackluster evidence of the church’s “saltiness,” the world has become a haven for comfort, ease and technological dependence. This book repeatedly exposes its outcome as cataclysmic. But in the immediate moment, the world’s offers are engaging, enjoyable and sufficient enough for the comfort and ease of the average citizen.
We now face a citizenry dependent on outside mechanisms for daily function and interaction. Americans watch 8.1 hours of television per day, spend countless hours in social networks, couldn’t think of living without tablets or smart phones, and spend whatever waking moments they can in virtual worlds like Second Life. Regardless of the implications, society has grown comfortable in that state. It is merely a part of the backsplash of modern life. The world doesn’t feel it is missing anything, and in fact turns the tables on the church. Like Pilgrim experienced in his venture through Vanity Fair, the world considers the Christian to be the one missing out on all life has to offer. Which is where the second discovery leads us.
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION 2: Despite scriptural assurance that Christianity is the best way of living, the church’s evidence is grossly lacking. The church, as a universal body of believers, hasn’t failed society. But church members, inept at living life with more zeal, richness, depth, compassion and insight than the average non-believer, can soil the power of the gospel. According to much of the culture, the church is grossly failing at living a “taste and see” evidential lifestyle. Instead, it is content to criticize others for what they place in their mouths. The church must live a Kingdom-focused life capable of producing such powerful evidence of Christ’s love and the Spirit’s wisdom that it silences every anti-Christian ambassador. The church must live the gospel, not merely preach it. Preaching requires no evidence of its claims. The eleventh-hour society, rife with a myriad of subjective voices, is looking for proof, not petitions. Megachurches and expository preachers may flourish if their sanctuaries are stacked with the first- through ninth-hour groups. Without verifiable, transformative evidence, the church may have fewer and fewer inroads into this eleventh-hour society.
“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’”
ASPECT 4: Nothing said prior resonated with the eleventh-hour group. Scripture makes it clear that the group also had been “standing all day” in the same marketplace. Under questioning, the eleventh-hour response was, “No one has hired us.” Nothing in the previous four petitions resonated with this group. It wasn’t necessarily that they were adverse to employment at the vineyard; it was that they had felt no draw from all previous methods of solicitation.
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION: The church must not merely uncover and address societal needs; it must speak through the culture’s various voices. The eleventh-hour society is not looking for the church to repackage its evangelistic message in their language. The eleventh-hour society isn’t even looking for the church. If “all truth is God’s truth,” then scriptural truth can be spoken and validated in the language of the domain in which it is applied. The church must avoid simply adopting culture to promote the gospel, but use the holistic Biblical Worldview to objectively explain, uncover and remedy culture’s most troubling issues and concerns. It is not merely theology, but biblical wisdom and understanding, that will be the foundational starting point for solutions in all of society’s many and broad domains. In a culture that has distanced itself from its Creator, the best its experts can offer is knowledge, which is rarely capable of transcending its particular sphere of application (experts in law often cannot speak into another domain, such as neuroscience). Wisdom (God’s pre-fall standards), as a transcending and transformative force, becomes the lens through which knowledge is filtered.
It may be that the world will pay more attention to the church when, through wisdom and understanding, it can better explain and apply the findings and discoveries of society’s many domains than any of its previous secular, knowledge-based experts. The church was never meant to do this alone. The church must recognize the holistic and transcendent power of wisdom and develop strategic relationships with society’s experts in knowledge. This “paradigm of partnership” between experts in knowledge and leaders in wisdom will ensure the church won’t dominate culture. Instead, it will help shape it. Through the correct understanding and application of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, the church will become the forerunner to solving the world’s most complex problems — in its own languages. It will rebuild the “ancient ruins” and by default become “the city on a hill” it always was meant to be. But it must do so with the utmost sense of previous regret and present humility.
“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’”
ASPECT 5: Of the five groups of laborers, the eleventh-hour was the pinnacle of humility and selflessness. While the other groups were promised some form of compensation, the eleventh-hour group (once engaged) went without negotiation or future incentive. They required no outlandish proposition, merely engaging dialog.
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION: The church must recognize its moral superiority complex may be both the world’s — and God’s — greatest turnoff. Christians tend to see themselves as superior: morally, philosophically and spiritually. Despite our promised heritage as the principal purveyors of “truth,” our superiority complex may actually turn God off. When the eleventh-hour group receives the same compensation as the first hour (one denarius), the first hour grumbles and complains. To this, the landowner refers to the first-hour laborers as “evil.” Now wait a minute. The first-hour laborers had borne the brunt of burden in the “scorching heat” of the day, but the landowner still calls them evil. Why? Their focus was internal and narcissistic, instead of external and selfless.
Their argument for greater compensation was rooted in their own needs and based on their own previous accomplishments. There was another way for the first-hour group to view their position: that of their value of service to the landowner and his customers. The first hour was given the high honor of providing the most benefit to the landowner. His customers received the greatest fruit from the first-hour group’s labor. Instead of relishing in their altruism, they remained egocentric. The attitude of the first-hour laborers reflected, in part, their perceived value of the landowner and his customers. We can see this same understanding through the older son in the Prodigal story. We must keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ and our able hands and loving eyes on the people around us.
ASPECT 6: The eleventh-hour group’s aversion and hatred of Christians is due to the fact that our failures have led to the consequences they must now endure. Because the church has, at times, been internally focused, elitist, judgmental and morally driven, the world wants little to do with Christianity, apart from an open hand during environmental disasters or the occasional bandage when times get personally trying. Scripturally, we are assured that when the world acts “worldly,” it is operating inside its own nature. To blame the world for acting inside its own inherency is like attacking a lion for being a carnivore. Instead, the church should humbly and compassionately recognize that because of our failures, society’s lions are now feeding on their own flesh for sustenance and satisfaction. The world is desperate for pleasure, but it is helpless when it comes to the consequence of those actions.
The role of the church, regardless of its first/ninth hour failure, is to display a reality so wonderfully fruitful, so radically winsome, that the world intentionally changes its harmful-yet-pleasurable direction and follows a different course. Our own failures have given full access to the intent of worldliness: death, destruction and misery. Worldly actions are part and parcel with unsaved humanity. Damaging Consequence, however, is not God’s intended intent for His image. Both come hand in hand. The failure of the church to fully remain “salt and light” has led to the gross destruction of much of the rest of humanity.
The church, to much of the culture, remains morally elitist, while the world still embraces sin’s pleasurable intent. Neither side recognizes worldly action for its strategic consequence. If we are honest, the blame should tip further toward the church, for its failure to act according to its intended nature, has led the eleventh-hour society to rush head-first into its destructive inherency.
The eleventh-hour group isn’t strictly looking for compensation for itself. Its concerned focus is on alleviation for its fellow man, the environment and other affective issues. It has been riddled with the consequence brought about by our lack of evidence and hypocrisy, and it wants to see something done about it. Instead of launching attacks or boycotts, the church must first recognize its own failures, humbly admit to its primary role in the degradation of society, and begin to partner with the eleventh-hour cohort for positive transformative change.
ASPECT 7: All other groups were called, but the eleventh-hour group specifically was chosen. All other groups were presented an offer and either took it or negotiated for the best terms. But the eleventh-hour group appears to be special; it was given equal standing; the statement is that the “last shall be first.”
ELEVENTH-HOUR APPLICATION: Despite their look, attitude, character and temperament, the church must recognize that the currently unsaved just might be God’s greatest treasures. We may have come into His fold in the earlier hours, but it may have been for the purpose of the group that currently wants little to do with the church. There must be a radical humility from the currently saved to those of the eleventh hour. Our arms must be open and accepting; our posture must be that of support rather than just instruction; our voice must resonate into the culture; and our fruit must be by far the most delicious on earth. Should we continue to attempt first-, third-, sixth- or ninth-hour evangelism, our solicitations may fail both humanity and the God who has chosen this group for His special purposes.
Eleventh-hour evangelism is not the preaching of a watered-down gospel. It is swallowing the holistic Biblical Worldview whole and allowing people to see the gospel’s power through the visage of transformed individuals and eventually, communities and nations. It sees all people as images of God, not select people as numbers for a church or denomination. And most importantly, it operates under the radical presupposition that if applied correctly, the gospel will cause all arenas of human existence to be holistically transformed in far greater measure than its current experts claim possible.
It doesn’t wait for the future Kingdom but attempts to bring the Kingdom to earth. It believes that man should first be made “fully alive” so then he (and the rest of the world) can then see the “glory of God.” It recognizes the weight of its current responsibility and past failure to this eleventh-hour society while also fully grasping the power of its own offer. While the believer comes to God as a son and joint heir, he comes to the eleventh-hour society as a servant.
1. Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons, unChristian, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007. Print.
2. The Harris Poll(R) #80, October 31, 2006