Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

Sermon 10-09-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 8: How We Witness”

October 25, 2016


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. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-11-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 4: Our Prayers”

September 22, 2016


The apostles faced a problem in Acts 6: One faction in the church was grumbling that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of money and food. What were the apostles going to do about it?

As I say in this sermon, this kind of grumbling is a sin. It goes against Jesus’ own words about forgiveness and reconciliation. But the grumbling—alongside the logistical problem which gave rise to it—wasn’t the biggest threat the church was facing in this crisis: the biggest threat was that the apostles would be distracted from their main calling, the ministry of God’s word and prayer.

Does our church reflect this same priority and why does it matter? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

Just last weekend, my beloved Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech played football in Ireland against Boston College. There was an article about the game in the Irish Times. The author pointed out that American football is growing in popularity in Ireland, although it pales in popularity to something called Gaelic football—not to mention in comparison to that sport that the rest of the world calls football, which is soccer to us. One challenge that many people outside of North America have to overcome in order to enjoy American football, according to the author of the article, is that there are “many stoppages” in the game. Isn’t that funny? There are many stoppages. The reporter marveled at the rock-star status that these student athletes enjoy in the public, as well as the huge salaries that these college coaches receive. He also wondered why so many people were passionately interested in a school’s football team when they didn’t themselves attend that school. But I especially liked this part:

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

The fans’ intensity became clear early on when I was warned that Georgia Tech must always be referred to with the ‘Tech’ part included and never simply as ‘Georgia’ – that being the name of their fiercest rivals University of Georgia. Apparently it’s something akin to referring to Manchester United as Manchester City.

My point is, while we have much in common with the Irish; while we speak the same language; while many Americans—including players on both teams—are descended from the Irish, there is much that separates us culturally.

A similar dynamic is going on in today’s scripture. In verse 1, we’re told that a “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.” Who are these two groups? Like the Irish and Irish-Americans, they are two groups that had much in common: The Hellenists and Hebrews shared the same ethnicity. They were ethnically Jewish. They both went to synagogues and worshiped in the Temple. And now they both had become members of the same church; they were both followers of Jesus Christ. Read the rest of this entry »

The gospel in 30 seconds

March 24, 2015


As I discussed last week, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a remarkable speech on the importance of personal evangelism, not simply for the “professionals” like me, but for everyone. The most recent episode of the podcast Unbelievable? includes the audio of that speech, along with an exclusive interview with Welby.

Here, the host of the show, Justin Brierley, asks Welby to imagine that Brierley were a non-Christian and asked Welby to explain the gospel in 30 seconds: what would he say?

Here the archbishop’s response:

I’d go straight in simple language to John’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 16, and say, ‘There’s a problem with human beings, which is that we don’t know God. In one way or another there’s a barrier between us and God. God has solved the problem, and it’s open to us to take that solution into our lives by opening our lives to his presence. And the Bible says that God so loved the world—because this is about love—that he gave—because it’s him taking the action—his only Son Jesus Christ—he himself—so that all who believe in him—that’s just put the weight of their lives on him—should not perish but have everlasting life. This is about hope. It’s positive. It’s really good news.

Welby is a theologically sophisticated person. Yet, notice how simple this short presentation is. It requires remembering one Bible verse, which we probably already know. Any of us can remember and recite something like this to someone.


“So how many people in your church have gotten saved over the past year?”

November 6, 2014

Recently I met a man who was new to our United Methodist tradition, and he wanted to find out about our church. He asked—with perfect innocence—”So how many people in your church have gotten saved over the past year?” And a part of me wanted to answer him, “You don’t know much about us Methodists, do you? We don’t do salvation like that. We don’t talk in terms of being saved or getting saved. Salvation is a mysterious process. But we hope that it it least happens around age 12 during confirmation.”

Like I said, a part of me wanted to answer him like that. The truth is, when he asked me that, I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. I say I believe that making a decision to follow Christ is the most important decision a person must make. I say that eternity hangs in the balance on this decision. I say that apart from the saving work of Christ on the cross, we are all bound for final judgment and hell.

say that I believe that. Yet I don’t preach it enough. I don’t live it out enough through my own personal witness. I don’t pray enough for people’s salvation. I’m not in the habit of meeting people and wondering, prayerfully, if they’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. I mean, sometimes I do, but it’s not a part of my routine; it’s not a part of my lifestyle.

Merciful God, help me change!

The average layperson would be surprised to learn that practically nothing we future Methodist clergy learn in mainline Protestant seminary prepares us for the task of inviting people to respond to the gospel message by accepting God’s gift of salvation in Christ—sometimes known as “leading someone to Christ,” or inviting them to “ask Jesus into their hearts”—call it whatever you want.

No one talks about getting saved!

Why? Our own United Methodist Book of Discipline says the following of our church’s main task:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)

By all means, as we Methodists rightly emphasize, the process of “making disciples” includes the lifelong process of being made into disciples—what we call sanctification. Salvation isn’t just a one-time decision that a person makes during an altar call, or at the end of a revival, or during confirmation.

But at some point we must make a decision—a deliberate, conscious choice—to surrender our lives to Christ and follow him. I wonder if many of us pastors don’t like confronting people with this choice because we don’t want to be rejected? So we make the gospel message something that people can’t reject. We’re just happy if people come to church. Maybe while they’re here they’ll become Christians by osmosis!

If you listen to my sermons, you’ve probably noticed that I often do invite people to make that choice in response to my message. This is—please note—a relatively recent development in my own preaching, something that’s only happened over the past few years.

But I realize I have a long way to go in order to become the kind of Christian—not to mention pastor—who places a priority on doing what our United Methodist Church says I—and all of us Methodists—ought to be doing: convincing the world of the truth of the gospel or leaving them unconvinced, without evading or delegating this responsibility.

I promise, with God’s help, I’m getting there!

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

February 28, 2014


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 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


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.