Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

Sermon 02-23-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 2″

February 28, 2014

practically_perfect

Perhaps the most important way in which the church fails to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” is when it comes to the work of evangelism. If we Christians believe that eternity is at stake in the question of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation, wouldn’t we approach this task with greater urgency? Instead, we are often reluctant to witness to our faith. Why? What can help us become more faithful in this mission?

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

So, Satan made news in Hollywood this week. I’m sure that was a mistake on Satan’s part. Usually, he goes about his work in Hollywood under the radar, without anyone noticing!

Be that as it may, Satan was in the news. You may recall that last year, Roma Downey, former star of Touched by an Angel, and her husband, Mark Burnett, creator and producer of the show Survivor, produced a hit miniseries called The Bible. They announced last week that they are recycling part of that miniseries to create a theatrically released movie about Jesus called Son of God.

If you saw the original miniseries, however, you may notice one small difference: Satan didn’t make the cut this time.

Literally, they’re cutting out the scene in which Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. When the original miniseries aired, that scene caused controversy after Glenn Beck tweeted that he saw a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. And that’s all anyone was talking about the next day. Roma Downey said she didn’t want a repeat of that experience. She said, “I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.” Read the rest of this entry »

Do we act like “making disciples” is our priority?

February 28, 2014

In my sermon last Sunday, I complained about the general lack of evangelistic fervor in United Methodist Church. I did so in response to one theologian’s saying that evangelism would be easier if you remove sin, Satan, and hell.

After all—generally speaking—Methodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell.

And where has it gotten us? Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Probably not, since we mostly haven’t done evangelism during that time. Our denomination’s declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, and final judgment, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “feel-good” kind of gospel? People can stay home and watch Oprah, or whomever, instead.

Was I coming on too strong? Was I exaggerating? A professor at the UMC-affiliated United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, wouldn’t think so. He wrote a great blog post about the same problem:

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciplines of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Ok. So far, so good.

One would expect, then, the public website of the UMC to serve this end of making disciples. As I look at the UMC.org website, though, I see the following:

A headline called, “What can a horse teach a pastor?”

There is a picture of Bishop Carcano being arrested.

There is a story on firewood ministry…

There is a story on Black History Month…

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

I’m certainly no marketing expert, but it does seem to me that if we wish our public internet presence to be consistent with our mission, these types of changes would be in order.

Indeed. But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.

Is it possible to enjoy evangelism?

February 20, 2014

jesus_skywriting

Twice during our Disney trip this week, a skywriter wrote messages about Jesus. The first was “JESUS 4GIVES JUST ASK,” and the second was the one pictured above, “JESUS LOI.” I know that doesn’t make sense. I’m sure he was going to turn that I into a V and spell out “JESUS LOVES YOU.” We drove away before we saw the finished product.

When I was younger and more foolish than I am today, I would have dismissed this sort of evangelistic effort as shallow and ineffective. But why? We could do worse than to remind people that Jesus loves them and will forgive them when they ask. And at least this person is doing something to spread the good news of God’s love in Christ. I assume when the pilot is on the ground he does other things, too. People obviously need more than just this message. But it’s a start.

One problem, however—which you can begin to see even from this photo—is that smoke letters quickly disperse, like wet ink smudging on paper. Since skywriting is a slow and painstaking process, it’s likely that the words on left will be unreadable before he finishes writing his message.

As we the church go about our task of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples, we probably want to make a more lasting impact on people’s lives. In fact, we want to make an eternal impact. How do we do that?

Answer: We don’t. We can’t!  It isn’t within our power to make an eternal impact on people’s lives.

Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit who does have that kind of power.

In his book Conspiracy of Kindness, pastor Steve Sjogren makes this point often: it isn’t about what we do so much as what the Holy Spirit does through us. We easily forget this fact. That’s why Sjogren says most of the evangelism we do either puts pressure on ourselves (“How many people have made faith decisions through our efforts?”), the person being evangelized (“Are you ready to pray right now to accept Christ as Savior and Lord?”), the evangelism program itself (“We’ll have guaranteed success if we follow these seven steps!”), or some combination of the three.

Where we should put the pressure, Sjogren argues, is on God.

In short, the Holy Spirit is the only true evangelist who has ever existed. His is the only power in the universe that can turn a convert into a disciple who looks like Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit truly is the only evangelist who has even been, then we are free to remove pressure from the wrong places. We can begin  seeing ourselves as coworkers with the Holy Spirit, letting Him do what only He can do anyway. Our role is to enjoy the flow of God’s life through us as we share our joy with others. When we abide in God, we don’t just speak or even demonstrate the message of His love; we embody that message in a way that makes people stand up and take notice.[†]

Enjoy the flow of God’s life through us?

I’m reminded of Br’er Rabbit: “Please don’t throw me into that briar patch!”

want to enjoy the flow of God’s life through me. Don’t you?

I’ll say more about this in my sermon on Sunday, as my sermon “Hearers and Doers” continues with Part 2.

Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness, rev. (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 55.

Evangelism for everyone!

February 7, 2014

conspiracyofkindness-CoverYears ago I had a boss, a district superintendent, who recommended that I read a book on evangelism called Conspiracy of Kindness, by Steve Sjogren. It’s “old” in Christian book circles—published in 1993, updated in 2003. Unfortunately, I didn’t read it back then. I wish I had!

Today, I’m sure there are many more fashionable books on the subject—I’ve read at least a few of them! But none of them has blown me away like this one.

Like most books on evangelism, Conspiracy of Kindness makes me feel guilty. If you’re a Christian who grew up in an evangelical church like me (Southern Baptist, in my case) you probably know that feeling of guilt. You know you’re supposed to share your faith, or share the love of Jesus Christ, or invite someone to church, or do something related to witnessing. And chances are you don’t feel like you do it often or well enough.

If you’re like me, witnessing usually feels embarrassing, awkward, risky. You fear rejection. (And I’m writing as someone who was even lousy at dating because I was afraid to ask girls out!) So you mostly don’t witness—at least intentionally. You hope some of that good old “lifestyle evangelism” seeps through your pores, but you’re not sure.

So, assuming you haven’t numbed your conscience yet through your unfaithfulness to the Great Commission, you probably feel guilty about it.

While I agree with the cliché often attributed to St. Francis (“Always remember to preach the gospel. And if necessary, use words.”), even preaching the gospel in this way—through actions more than words—should be a deliberate act, at least until doing it becomes second nature. We should pray to do it, plan to do it, prepare to do it, expect to do it.

Witnessing will still happen by accident, of course. But I’ve found that it doesn’t happen very often that way. Isn’t that your experience?

And herein lies the strength of Conspiracy of Kindness: It makes evangelism so easy I think even could do it!

Here is Sjogren’s approach: take a small group of church members, go outside the church and into the community, and perform small, free, no-strings-attached acts of kindness for people.

He gives dozens of examples of this type of service: giving out soft drinks to passersby on hot summer days; washing windshields in shopping mall parking lots; cleaning toilets at local retail establishments; washing cars; raking yards; handing out bottles of Gatorade to cyclists and joggers at the local park. It could be any number of other things—be creative! But it’s all free of charge. No donations accepted.

Yes, people will be suspicious. Yes, they might think you’re crazy at first. When they ask, as they inevitably will, “Why are you doing this?” His team’s response is, “We’re doing this free service project as a practical way to show God’s love.”

And that’s all the talking, and all the interaction, that’s required.

Of course, sometimes the act of kindness will lead to something more: According to Sjogren, some people begin weeping when offered an act of kindness. Some people ask for prayer. And, yes, sometimes people will even want to pray to receive Christ.

But Sjogren emphasizes that we don’t worry about the results. We leave that up to the Holy Spirit. He’s the one in charge.

I have an idea that this approach to evangelism will become a part of what we do at Hampton UMC. I imagine I’ll even be referring to Sjogren’s book in my upcoming sermons on the Letter of James.

Sermon for 03-11-12: “The E-Word, Part 2″

March 15, 2012

"The Baptism of the Eunuch" (1626) by Rembrandt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Where's the water, by the way?

Many of us are very reluctant to share our faith with others. It might feel intrusive or pushy. It might make us feel like we’re selling something. We worry that our efforts will feel phony. As I share in this sermon, however, if we Christians are not witnessing to our faith as a regular part of our routine, we’re already being phony: if we believe what we say we believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we should naturally want to share that news with others.

What are some practical ways in which we can witness? I explore this question in the following sermon.

Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

In case you haven’t heard, we are in the midst of a heated political season. There’s a satirical negative political ad on YouTube you might have seen. The idea behind the video is that all these negative attack ads, regardless who’s running them, follow the same script. All you have to do is change the names and some of the words. It’s like “Mad Libs.” Anyway, it goes something like this:

“Can we risk an America run by [insert opponent’s name]? He clearly doesn’t understand that America is built on hard work, not [insert opponent’s previous occupation]. Sure, now he says he opposes [insert hot button issue; show news clip], but he used to support [hot button issue; show grainy footage with dead politician]… Around here, that [insert downhome metaphor] just don’t [insert verb]. Better ask yourself: Can America risk [insert opponent’s name].”

You get the idea. There’s something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic about these ads. I’m sure that when I talk about doing the work of evangelism, the E-word… otherwise known as “witnessing”… you’re worried that I’m talking about doing something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic—that I’m talking about following some script. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the gospel, exactly?

March 12, 2012

Yesterday, I finished my two-part sermon series on evangelism. I hope yesterday’s sermon gave some practical advice on how to do it. One gaping hole in my presentation was that I didn’t spend time talking about what exactly the gospel is. At some point, we need to be able put the gospel into words.

An early draft of the sermon included the following paragraphs, which I cut due to time constraints. In it, I summarize the gospel. How did I do? What would you add? What would you subtract?

I hope that last week I got across the point that we who have given our lives to Jesus Christ have an urgent mission: to share with others, through our actions and our words, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s urgent because people in our community and all over the world are living and dying without being in a saving relationship with God through Christ. And why does that matter? Well, if what we say we believe about Jesus is true, it isn’t simply the case that it doesn’t matter what we believe about God, so long as we’re sincere; or that Christianity is one of many possible paths to God; or that God is going to forgive everyone in the end, regardless of what they believe about God’s Son Jesus.

I understand the emotional appeal of believing these things—in part because I’ve had non-Christian friends who put me to shame when it comes to loving other people and performing acts of kindness, and I’m tempted to say that on that basis they should be saved—that they’ve “earned” salvation every bit as much as I have. The problem is we don’t earn salvation. In fact, we’re all sinners—even the most virtuous among us. One ironic side-effect of growing closer to God—what the church calls “sanctification”—is that we simultaneously become more aware of how far short we fall of God’s glory. We become increasingly aware of our sinfulness and how much we need God’s saving grace.

Left to our own devices, we’re all in trouble because of our sin. Fortunately, God didn’t leave us to our own devices. God has rescued us through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Out of love, God took care of our problem with sin on the cross, which enables us to be in right relationship with God—not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done for us through Christ. We no longer have to fear standing before God in final judgment, because in Christ, God has already read our verdict: and that verdict is “not guilty.”

Now because Christ defeated death in resurrection, we can face death with confidence, knowing that it no longer has the last word: we, too, will be resurrected into God’s coming kingdom. And not only that: we have power through the Holy Spirit to live differently now—to live now as if God’s kingdom were already here. And that means loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and working for justice and peace in the world. Through faith in Christ we become everything God created us to be.

 

Does this describe your feelings about the E-word?

March 9, 2012

From Rick Richardson’s Reimagining Evangelism:

People often say to me some version of the following: “I don’t like to push things on people if they don’t want them. I’m kind of introverted, I’m not good at arguing with people, I avoid conflict, and I hate awkwardness in relationships. So evangelism is not for me. I feel guilty that I don’t share my faith. But I feel inadequate, shut down and even inauthentic about becoming an extroverted crusader for God.”1

1. Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 18.

Sermon for 03-04-12: “The E-Word, Part 1″

March 7, 2012

In this two-part sermon series starting today, I talk about a word that makes many Methodists uncomfortable: the E-word… evangelism. Whereas we Methodists distinguish ourselves as Christians who love and serve so many people in our world, we are often reluctant to say “why” we do it. Yet the need to say why has never been greater.

Increasingly, people in our community don’t understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. We can be confident, however, that if they knew, many of them would say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In fact, many of them are waiting for people like us to help show them the way.

Sermon Text: John 4:19-39

Last week, at Oxford University, the very famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, debated Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There weren’t many fireworks in the debate. It was a polite and respectful conversation—which isn’t a surprise given how kind and gentle a man the archbishop is. But something remarkable did happen. Dawkins admitted that he is not actually an atheist. He is merely an agnostic: while he doesn’t think God exists, he’s unwilling to say for sure.

This was a remarkable admission. But what was more remarkable was how Dawkins responded when asked how certain he was that there wasn’t a God—to put a number on it, to give us the odds. He said that, in his opinion, the odds against God’s existence were 6.9 out of 7. Read the rest of this entry »

Recommended books on evangelism

March 3, 2012

Tomorrow in Vinebranch we begin our two-part sermon series on evangelism. I’ve read several books to get ready for these sermons. I can heartily recommend a couple. The first is Reimagining Evangelism by Rick Richardson. He handles contemporary misconceptions about evangelism well, and gives us a new way of thinking about how to do it: It’s about inviting friends to join us on a spiritual journey. None of us, after all, has already arrived.

He also nicely emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has already prepared people to hear and receive the gospel; our job is to follow his lead. This emphasis takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?

When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to be an effective witness, but I was often uncomfortable with the ways in which I saw it done. I had a friend—Heavy Metal Mark—who was really into hair metal. (This was the ’80s, after all.) He loved bands like Mötley Crüe and their nearest “Christian” equivalent, Stryper. He had long hair and even wore spandex occasionally. You get the picture.

He occasionally went to the mall with a group from my church to hand out gospel tracts and attempt to engage strangers in conversation about Christianity. One day, he invited me to come along. I even considered it. Doing something to be a witness is often better than doing nothing. Plus it might assuage my guilty conscience—since I mostly did nothing.

One of my sisters caught wind of what I was thinking and said, “If I saw Heavy Metal Mark approaching me with a gospel tract at the mall, I would want to run in the other direction!” I got her point and relented. I’m not saying that Heavy Metal Mark’s aggressive form of evangelism couldn’t be effective in some situations, but it wasn’t for me. And that’s O.K.

Maybe witnessing isn’t something we approach as if it were a root canal. Maybe it shouldn’t fill us with dread. Maybe it can be more organic… more natural. Something to fit our unique personalities and gifts. This is mostly what Richardson’s book is about.

Another good book is Can We Talk: Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World. I was confused about the subtitle, but I think the author, a professor at Asbury Seminary named Robert Tuttle, is being optimistic.

Tuttle made it his mission to identify some universal convictions that the good news of Jesus Christ addresses. For example, one thing that most people in the world share, regardless of culture, is a conviction that they have failed to measure up; they’ve let other people down. He demonstrates through case studies how we can connect this conviction, along with other universals, to the “remedy” provided by the gospel. It’s a very practical book.

I get no “promotional consideration” for recommending these books, although I can be bought. Publishers, please contact my agent. ;-)

There is no evangelism without words

January 27, 2012

As some of you know, I’ve felt convicted for several months that I’m not doing enough in the area of evangelism. I’m not doing enough personal evangelism, and I’m not providing enough leadership in that area to my congregation. I repent! I want to change. But the truth is I don’t know how to do it. Not very well, at least.

So I’m reading books. A few that I’ve read so far have been deeply theological. I speak that language, so I appreciate this emphasis. By all means, let’s understand what evangelism is and why we bother with it. But I finish these books thinking, “O.K., so tell me how to do it.” This has happened a few times. These books float about five feet off the ground. They’re vague. They talk about “hospitality” and “community” and “mission.”

You know what they mostly don’t talk about? Opening your mouth and letting words come out. When to do it. How to do it. What to say. For many of these authors, words are a last resort. And you’ve only earned the right to use them on someone after you’ve helped him move a piano up a flight of stairs. You have to become his best friend first. (I’m only exaggerating a little.) “Relationship, relationship, relationship,” these authors say. God knows how Philip converted the Ethiopian eunuch. He only just met the guy!

I am increasingly convinced that no evangelism takes place without words. We’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. Do we need to look at the decline of mainline Protestantism as proof?

God bless the man who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” (It’s usually attributed to St. Francis, but he probably didn’t say it.) So comforting, so reassuring, so wrong.

I get that our words mean nothing if they’re not spoken with integrity, and actions speak louder, etc. But there is no gospel without words. There is no evangelism without words. Or if there is, it’s so exceptional it’s not even worth mentioning. We’re not doing evangelism right if we don’t, at some point, explain what the gospel of Jesus Christ is or why it matters to us. I’m sure this is really obvious to many of you, but for some reason I didn’t get it. I don’t think I’m alone.

Someone who is helping me get it is Robert Tuttle. I’m reading his book Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World. He challenges his readers to pray every morning this prayer: “God, make me sensitive to my opportunities for ministry.” He says that it will open doors for us to share our faith. Ministry is obviously much more than witnessing with words, but he wants us to pray for opportunities to use words in order to help people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s an example of how not to do it. I belong to a civic organization outside of church. We had our monthly meeting tonight. I was a little bored (don’t tell anyone!) and grumpy because my entree was too salty. I made only a perfunctory effort to be sociable. I introduced myself to a few people I didn’t know. But I didn’t try hard.

And you know what thought didn’t cross my mind even once? “What if these people haven’t yet experienced the good news of Jesus Christ? What can I do to find out where they are spiritually? How can I help them understand the gospel?” And I’m supposedly a full-time minister! What’s my problem?

Anyway… You get my point. This is what I’m working on right now.

Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 73.

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