Most Christians are afraid of witnessing. Instead of admitting our fear, however, we often make excuses for why we shouldn’t witness. We tell ourselves, for example, that we don’t want to risk “turning someone off,” or that we don’t know someone well enough to talk about religion. What excuses have you used? This sermon challenges us to overcome our fear.
(Sorry… no audio or video this week. 😦 )
Sermon Text: Acts 17:16-34
If you’ve lost a job recently, and have had to find a new one, you know all about networking. The idea behind networking is, when it comes to getting a good job, it’s not what you know, or how good your resumé is, or how well or poorly you interview, or even how skillful or well-qualified you are. No: it’s all about who you know. “Networking” is about marketing yourself to the right people, meeting the “right” people—people who can help you find the right job.
It’s about putting yourself out there, going up to complete strangers and introducing yourself, and making small talk, and talking about how great you are. Many people, especially people who are shy and introverted, would rather die than do these things.
A consultant named Andy Molinsky wrote an article in last month’s Harvard Business Review about the discomfort that many people feel about networking. His advice? Step outside your comfort zone and do it anyway. Otherwise, he says, you’ll make excuses to justify why you shouldn’t do it: “Networking isn’t that important,” you tell yourself. “It’s the quality of your work that counts,” or “People who network are slimy or full of themselves, and I’m not like that.”
I bring this up because I’m interested in talking about witnessing—that fifth promise we make to God and to one another when we join a United Methodist church. We promise to witness. Yet for many of us, the prospect of witnessing is at least as scary as speaking in public, or making small talk with strangers, or anything else that’s outside of our comfort zones.
We don’t want to witness, so what do we do instead? We do the very thing that Molinsky predicts that we’ll do: Which is, make excuses about why we shouldn’t witness.
Two weeks ago, I talked about one of these excuses—that we don’t know enough about the Bible or theology to be effective witnesses. I said that when we’re witnessing, we’re mostly speaking from personal experience about what Christ means to us. If we have experienced Jesus Christ as genuinely good news—and if we have a relationship with Christ, then we certainly should have—we already have something to share with others. We already have what it takes to be a witness.
But we make plenty of other excuses. One of the most common is that we don’t want to risk “turning people off.” We don’t want to say the wrong thing, or say it in the wrong way, so that we’ll harm the cause of Christ and his kingdom. When I was in college, for example, I remember an evangelist—a businessman on his lunch break—would stand on the steps of the student center every Tuesday at lunchtime and preach the gospel. I used to think, “He’s turning people off.” But when I paused long enough to actually listen to his message, it was truthful, loving, and sincere. It was faithful to scripture. And he wasn’t just talking at the students in a self-righteous way; he was answering their questions and responding to their objections.
As I think of it, he was one of the bravest people I’ve ever seen. Because plenty of very skeptical students were happy to let him know—in very insulting ways—that they didn’t want to hear about Jesus.
And of course that would be the case no matter how he made his presentation. There was nothing he could say to win them over.
There’s a former NFL linebacker who played with the Indianapolis Colts named Derwin Gray who’s now a pastor in South Carolina. When he came into the league, he wasn’t a Christian. But he had a teammate—Steve Grant—who was known as the Naked Preacher. Why? Because he would walk around sharing the gospel with his teammates in the locker room—often wearing nothing but a towel. The first words that the Naked Preacher spoke to Derwin Gray were, “Rookie D. Gray, do you know Jesus?” And then he would share the gospel with him.
The Naked Preacher sounds a little crazy, I’ll admit, but he was the person his teammates went to when they were in trouble or needed advice. It didn’t happen right away, but eventually, the Naked Preacher led Gray to faith in Christ. And the Naked Preacher didn’t seem to care whether or not he “turned people off.”
The truth is, as I reflect on today’s scripture, I no longer think the risk of “turning people off” is a good excuse for not witnessing. Why do I say that? Because God’s Word tells us in a hundred different ways that sharing the gospel will always turn people off! For example, the apostle Paul surely had the events of today’s scripture in mind when he told the Corinthians that the “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” and that preaching Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”
The gospel sounds like foolishness to a lot of people. It will turn people off. Paul turned people off! All the time!
Consider today’s scripture: Paul is only in Athens in the first place because he was literally run out of town in the city of Berea, where he had been staying. The church there was worried for his safety, so they packed him up and sent him on his way… to Athens—because Paul’s life was at risk. Why? Because Paul turned people off. Then, after he was in Athens, some philosophers overheard Paul sharing the gospel and how did they respond? “What does this babbler wish to say?” He turned them off. Later, when Paul tells members of the Areopagus—which is the equivalent of the city council—when he tells them that Christ was resurrected, Luke says that some of the members of the council mocked him and made him stop talking. Why did these learned men mock him and tell him to stop? Because he turned them off!
The point is, if we are faithfully witnessing to others—if we’re doing it right—we will sometimes turn people off. It comes with the territory. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” And we need to learn to be O.K. with that! We need to learn how to handle rejection. And I say that as someone who rarely dated in high school and college because I was deathly afraid of rejection. I would only ask a girl out if I was 99.9 percent sure that she would agree to go out with me. And I couldn’t read any of her cues away, so a girl would have to knock me upside the head to get me to ask her out! Because the thought of being turned down was so horrifying.
And so it is with witnessing. We are like this as a church—and please don’t misunderstand, I’m not just talking about Hampton; I’m talking about every single church I’ve ever been a part of, as a layperson or pastor. We modern-day Christians are, in general, deathly afraid of rejection.
In fact, we try to make it impossible for a person to reject the gospel. Seriously… We rarely ask someone to make a decision to accept Christ as their Savior and Lord. Instead, we think, “If only lost people see how nice we all are at this church, how excellent our programs are, how much we love and care for their children and their families, why, of course, they’ll decide—for a change—not to sleep in on Sunday morning and instead come to worship with us, where they might hear the gospel and be saved. It could happen. Right? But if they don’t, that’s O.K., too. Because, you know, having positive feelings about church—even coming to worship a couple times a year at Christmas and Easter—that’s as good as being saved, right? That’s as good as being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Remember what Jesus said? When final judgment comes, “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
What will the lost people of Hampton, Georgia, say when they face our Lord in final judgment? “Lord, Lord, we didn’t really do anything for you in your name, but we did have a very high opinion of that church down the street. We even went a few times!” Will our Lord say to them, “Oh, well, in that case, come right in”?
Do you see the problem?
Again, it’s not just us Methodists… Back in the 1960s, a Catholic missionary, Father Vincent Donovan, described being a part of a mission to East Africa, where a nomadic tribe known as the Masai lived. For over a hundred years, the Catholic church had operated a mission in East Africa, in an effort to convert the Masai people to Christianity. They did what we Methodists try to do, except on a much larger scale. They offered the Masai western medicine; they offered their children a modern western education; they offered agricultural assistance to their farmers. And the tribe gratefully received these gifts.
But for a hundred years the church had almost no converts to show for all this good work. Even the kids who were hearing about Jesus in their church schools weren’t bringing it home with them and sharing it with their families.
So Donovan got a crazy idea: What if I follow the example of the apostle Paul and simply go to the people directly, and, with their permission, share the gospel message—you know, with words—instead of dressing it up with all this extra stuff, which the church was using almost like a bribe—to get them in church so that they might somehow hear the gospel and be converted.
So Donovan resolved to do just that, but he wrote in his memoir that there was a problem: he was so unaccustomed to actually putting the gospel into words, that he had to re-learn what exactly the gospel was and why it mattered. And when he told the tribal elders that the reason the church was there in the first place was to share this gospel, they said, “If that’s what you wanted to do, why didn’t you just say so?”
And guess what happened? Through Donovan’s efforts, for the first time in a hundred years, the church in East Africa had actual converts.
And I know from personal experience that the United Methodist Church, among many other churches in East Africa, continues to call people to make a decision for Christ—and the church is growing explosively.
But we tell ourselves, “That won’t work here”—notwithstanding the success of the Naked Preacher and so many others.
Another excuse we tell ourselves to avoid witnessing: we can only witness to people that we know—really well. Unless we know people really well, it’s better not to say anything. It’s often called “friendship evangelism.” But notice in today’s scripture Paul knows nothing of friendship evangelism. What does it say he’s doing? Verse 17: “So he”—Paul—“reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” The people who happened to be there—in this strange city where he was alone and didn’t know anyone. Even though this trip to Athens was unplanned, Paul didn’t consider it a vacation from his mission. We’re always on duty when it comes to witnessing. One evangelist said that if a stranger is willing to have a conversation with him—on an airplane, in a coffee shop, in the checkout line, wherever—he assumes that that is the Holy Spirit putting that person in his life so that he can witness to him or her. He said he believes he has a divine appointment to witness.
Some of you have probably tuned me out. You do not agree with what I’m saying. I get it. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have agreed, either. But even if you don’t agree that you ought to be witnessing—it’s just not for you—do you at least agree with the sentiment behind Luke’s words in verse 16? “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Greatly distressed. It greatly distressed Paul to see all these idols because he understood that they signified a culture that was lost—it signified hundreds of thousands of souls that, potentially, were bound for hell! It signified nothing less than the handiwork of our enemy, the devil, and how thoroughly he had bound these people in the chains of their idolatry.
Can we, along with Paul, also be “greatly distressed” when we look at our community and our culture?
What could Paul do—what could he possibly do—to rescue them from their enslavement?
What could Paul do? Not a thing! But what could the gospel of Jesus Christ do? Everything!
The gospel, Paul writes in Romans 1, is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” As I said earlier, citing 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but Paul continues: “to those whom God has called,” the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Do you see the point: The gospel itself has power. God has made it to be that way. God calls people through our gospel proclamation. If we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not making disciples! [pick up smartphone] If we as a church aren’t sharing the gospel as our number one priority, it’s like we’ve spent money and resources to build this amazing device but we’ve removed the battery… or we’ve disconnected the power supply… This may be the greatest thing people would ever experience, but they’ll never know because all they have is this blank screen! It’s not working! There’s no power! They need power. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power they need!
It’s time for us to let the gospel do the good work it was intended to do—which is, first, to turn a lot of people off, that’s true… But for everyone else? It’s to bring them salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life!
Our church is pretty famous for putting on big community events. Vacation Bible school, Disney Summer Drive-In, the upcoming Trunk or Treat, the live nativity, Easter egg hunts… We do a great job getting people to come to these things. And we do these things in hopes that people will somehow wake up early on Sunday morning, come to church, hear the gospel, and be saved.
But let’s face facts. It’s not working. People don’t come back. Not really. Sleeping in is nice. And they don’t know what’s at stake anyway, because most of them believe either that God’s going to save everyone in the end, so it doesn’t matter, or at least he’ll save all the “good” people—and they’re hoping against hope that that somehow includes them. They don’t know that we’re all sinners whose sins have separated us from God, that we all deserve judgment and hell, that we all need a Savior to die for our sins, that we all need Someone to set us free from our bondage to sin.
All that to say, we need to change—I need to change… And I want your help…
1. See 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
2. Matthew 7:22-23 ESV
3. Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th ann. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1978).
4. Romans 1:16
5. From 1 Corinthians 1:23-24