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

"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.

Whatever “witnessing” is, it’s so important that the United Methodist Church decided four years ago that each member of our church must now promise to do it when they join our churches. Witnessing means that we do something or we say something to demonstrate to others the love of God in Jesus Christ. Not only that: there’s intentionality behind doing it: the intention, as Dr. Martin always says, is to “win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ.” Witnessing, in other words, is something that we think about, pray about, and plan on doing—or else, guess what? It doesn’t get done. At least not very much.

I would love to tell you that if we just lived a faithful Christian life, the difference that Jesus makes in our lives would be so abundantly obvious to non-Christians that of course they would naturally want to have what we have, and they would come to church on their own initiative and give their lives to Jesus, too—just like we did. I would love to tell you that, but you know it’s not true. At some point evangelism means using words—or it’s not evangelism.

In the church I grew up in, we talked about evangelism a lot—to the point of making everyone feel guilty if they weren’t conducting a Billy Graham Crusade every day at high school! So I wanted to be a witness, but I didn’t really know how. Meanwhile, I had a friend from youth group—let’s call him 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.

Heavy Metal Mark occasionally went to the mall with a group of church friends to hand out gospel tracts and attempt to engage complete strangers in conversation about Christianity. One day, Mark invited me to come along. I even considered it. Doing something to be a witness is often better than doing nothing. Plus it might make me feel less guilty—since I mostly did nothing.

One of my sisters got wind of what I was thinking of doing and said, “If I saw Heavy Metal Mark approaching me at the mall to talk to me about Jesus, I would want to run in the other direction!” I got her point and decided not to go. Something about that form of evangelism feels impersonal, generic, inauthentic… pushy, doesn’t it? In fact, our fear of being pushy is something that often prevents us from witnessing. One evangelism expert puts it like this:

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.”

Sound familiar?

Evangelism, however, is not about being something you’re not. If you’re not naturally some kind of super-extroverted, outgoing person who easily strikes up conversations with people you don’t know, God is probably not calling you to change in order to be a witness. No… we can be authentically who we are and be witnesses. In fact, we need to be authentic. What kind of witness are we going to be if we’re phony?

Many years ago, in the early ’90s, I was at a computer store. Even back then I was a fan of Apple computers, and I was browsing in the small Apple section of the store. This was in the dark days before there was such a thing as an “Apple Store,” and we Apple users were like a small but enthusiastic religious cult. I was browsing around, and there was a guy who bumped into me, introduced himself, and told me he was thinking about buying his first Mac. What could I tell him about Macs? And I’m like, “Well, you’ve come to the right place… Let me give you all the benefits and features.” He seemed really interested in what I was saying—strangely interested, in retrospect. He said, “Hey, can I call you if I have any more questions.” Even in my enthusiasm to convince him to buy a Mac, this was a little weird. I said, “Well, sure… my number’s in the phone book.” (Remember when we used phone books?) He said, “Great!”

I didn’t think anything else about it. A week later, he called. He sounded nervous as he reminded me who he was. And he asked me if I would be interested in buying Amway products. Ugh! And I just felt burned, you know? So he was basically lying to me when he acted interested in Macs. He was fishing for a reason to call me so he could sell me something. I’m sure he learned that in Amway class. He was a phony, a fraud… And most people can spot a phony a mile away.

If we’re worried about being phony when we witness, consider this: If we Christians are not sharing our faith with others, we’re already being phony. See what I mean? I have a pastor friend who is really good at witnessing; who’s very comfortable talking to others about his Christian faith. And he told me once: “For me, it’s  just a matter of integrity. If I believe what I say I believe about Jesus, then I have to let other people know.”

And so it is with us.

If we struggle to do the work of evangelism, if we struggle to witness, I’m convinced that we don’t have a problem with evangelism so much as we have a problem with love! Witnessing should be a natural expression of our love for others. I admit I have a love problem. [Share story from blog about sending cards…] I need to practice getting outside of myself and my own concerns and problems and learn to love and care for others. The Holy Spirit is teaching me to do this!

O.K., so let’s talk about some practical ways that we can share our faith…

I chose today’s scripture because it illustrates the most important thing I can tell you about witnessing: When we witness, we let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting. We follow the Holy Spirit’s lead. Notice that everything that Philip does in today’s scripture is directed by God. He’s led by God to this road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Then it says in verse 29 that the Spirit told Philip to walk up to this particular carriage, which, as it turns out, belongs to an official in the queen’s court in Ethiopia.

Philip at this point has no idea why the Spirit has led him to this place, to this person. But part of what it means to be a good witness is to look for clues. It’s like doing detective work. What can I do in this situation to be a witness? And it requires a lot of prayer. In fact, one evangelism expert says that we should often pray: “God, make me sensitive to my opportunities for ministry.”[1] We should also pray: “Jesus, where are you already at work? Lord, lead me to people who are receptive.” And we might also pray, “Is there someone you want me to talk to, care for, or pray with [right now]? Is there someone here who is hurting [to whom I can reach out in love]?”[2] And the Holy Spirit, who’s always working in the hearts of people all around us, will present those opportunities to us.

Maybe you’ve ignored the “voice of the Holy Spirit” in the past? Let’s not do that anymore!

I know you can be a witness! You’ve seen many of your brothers and sisters in Christ be witnesses for the past several weeks through their video testimonies. And some of you have written a few sentences about the difference that Jesus makes in your life on your index card for your homework assignment!

Would you ever have opportunities to share these words with a non-Christian friend or co-worker or neighbor or family member? Of course you would! If your friend is going through a difficult time, for example, wouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world for you to share with them the strength that God gives you to make it through tough times.

Here are some ways you might broach the subject of faith with people, and to do so in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way:[3]

“Do you have any religious background, and does it mean anything to you today?

Have you ever had what you would consider a spiritual experience? What was that like?

Have you ever had an experience of feeling close to God? What do you think God might be like?

What do you think about prayer? Do you think it works?”

These questions can help get the conversation started.

Another very natural thing for you to offer to do for someone who’s going through a tough time is to offer to pray for them. And you can say to them, “Do you mind if I pray for you?” Even if they don’t pray themselves, they’ll appreciate the gesture. They might say, “Well, I guess it can’t hurt.” And depending on what the Lord leads you to do, you might even ask if you could pray with that person. One evangelism expert says that he does this frequently with his non-Christian friends, and he believes that these types of prayers are unusually effective. These are prayers to which God often answers “yes.”

Something else you can do is to invite… invite non-Christians to church. Invite them to a Bible study. Invite them to a small group. Invite non-Christians on a service project—to feed the homeless, for example. Or maybe we in Vinebranch can organize a service project for our upcoming Great Day of Service on April 21. One good form of evangelism is getting people involved in serving others. But Lent and Easter is a time when people are often thinking about going to church somewhere. It might be a good time to invite them.

I know what some of you are thinking: I don’t know enough to witness. I don’t have it all together myself. I struggle. I have doubts. Listen, when it comes to witnessing, our vulnerability is a secret asset. Non-Christians don’t want or need to hear how we have it all together, spiritually, and everything in our life is perfect. I mean, we do have something that makes a huge difference that they don’t have. But they need to know that in other ways we’re not so different from them… Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we’ve already arrived at our destination. It means we’re on a very fulfilling journey… a journey, to be sure, that has its ups and downs and heartaches and struggles, but one that we’re confident will lead us home.

Evangelism is inviting friends to join us on that journey. Will we trust the Lord enough to do that?

May God make it so. Amen.

[1] Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 73.

[2] Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 39.

[3] Ibid., 42.

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