Someone like this deacon named Philip in today’s Scripture reading. Someone who shares the gospel with people who don’t know about Jesus. Have you thought of yourself as someone who tells others about Jesus?
Just the thought of that can send shockwaves and rock our world. Very few of us warm-up to the word evangelism. It seems to either make us feel guilty because we’re not doing it, or makes us cringe because there’s no way we would ever want to do it.
A very large study was conducted on evangelism in churches like ours. The conclusive finding was that the vast majority of people would rather go get a root canal than talk about, much less DO, evangelism. For the last forty years, most churches have been in decline. It seems we’ve developed a life-threatening aversion to evangelism!
Right now, you might be hoping that I change the subject. Maybe you would rather have me show you pictures from my trip to Arizona last week. Anything but a sermon on evangelism!
When my plane was landing this past Wednesday evening in Columbus, the flight attendant announced, “Welcome to Columbus, but I think you all made the wrong choice.”
Seriously though, I want to thank so many of you who helped shovel and salt the sidewalks last weekend to make it possible to at least have one service last Sunday. And a big thank you to Rev. Ben Edwards and Dave Bayless for filling in for me while I was away. I was telling my sister and brother-in-law while I was visiting with them how much I enjoy serving as your pastor and what a great church you are.
See how I would rather talk about my trip than today’s topic of evangelism?
Why do so many of us have such a visceral reaction to evangelism? There are all kinds of reasons why not much evangelism is happening in most congregations. I’ll give you some of my own reasons.
I don’t want to be anything close to the stereotype that comes to my mind when I think of an “evangelist.”
I don’t want to wear a fancy white suit every Sunday or con people out of their money.
Nor do I want to offend people by pressuring them with rhetoric about where they’ll spend eternity.
Besides that, I wonder sometimes what business I have telling people what they ought to be doing or believing. I have enough trouble in my own life doing and believing what I should.
I’d rather just do the best I can, being the best Christian I can be, and hope that is a good enough witness to others. After all, one of my favorite quotes is the one from St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.
I do fine talking faith language with you here at church. I love talking about church things with my church buddies, but when I’m with people who aren’t churchgoers, words seem to fail me. I get nervous. And sometimes, I miss opportunities where I could have shared my faith with someone.
But what happens when we meet someone who obviously needs to hear some words about God’s love? Someone like the Ethiopian eunuch from our scripture reading this morning. He is an African man with an important job that came at a high price.
Most likely, he had been castrated at some point in his life so that he could serve the queen of Ethiopia. That’s why he’s called a “eunuch.” He was unable to be married or have children.
Religious law at that time, kept him from participating in worship services. Yet, somehow, he had heard of God and wanted to know more about God. What do you do when you don’t think of yourself as an evangelist but you come across someone like this man?
Someone who bears deep wounds inflicted by the world . . .
Someone who is not welcomed by traditional religion . . .
Someone who looks successful but feels empty . . .
Someone who is searching for God, searching for something besides what she has . .
Someone who needs to hear about God’s love.
Someone like a man named, Rick. Rick was a successful businessman. He attended a church in the “Bible belt” of our country. He came because he saw an ad they had placed on TV. The minister of the church had been opposed to putting ads for a church on television. “Only fundamentalist mega-churches do that,” he said. “It costs too much anyway. We should be using that money for caring for the poor. Besides,” he said, “What kind of people pick their church from ads on television?”
But the church did it anyway. They got dozens of visitors who had never before been to any church in their lives. One of them was Rick. Rick brought his 8-year-old son, Andy, to church one Sunday. The children’s Sunday school happened to be studying Esther that day, and Andy was part of the class.
Monday morning the minister got a call from Rick. “My son is so excited about this story he heard at church,” he said. “He said the story is from the ‘book of Esther.’ Can you tell me where I can get a copy of that book? I want to read it to him at home. Can I buy it at the bookstore or would the library have it?'”
Rick, a college graduate and successful businessman, had never owned a Bible. He had no idea that Esther is one of sixty-six books in the Bible.
Here’s the reality. There are many people in our community who do not know that Esther is a book in the Bible. This is increasingly true.
In 1910 only 3% of Americans were growing up with no faith training, but in the 1980s 14.5% were growing up with no faith training. And the number of people coming to adulthood in the U.S. with no faith training at all continues to increase.
In our own county, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, the latest demographic study shows that 68% of our neighbors have no religious identity. They are not Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Christian. They are not connected religiously at all.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the Ethiopian man asked. That’s a good question.
For people like Rick, the obstacle to being baptized, to becoming a Christian, is simply that no one had ever told them about God. Let me say that again. No one had ever told them about God.
Friends, I wonder if we are preventing people from hearing about God. Are we keeping people from hearing about God’s love? Are we constructing barriers between the gospel and the people who desperately need to hear it?
Is our fear of being like a stereotype of a bible thumper a barrier?
Is our lack of confidence in ourselves a barrier?
Is our desire to give people their “space” about religion a barrier?
Could it be that for many people like Rick, we are actually preventing them from knowing more about God? Are we keeping people from becoming followers of Jesus Christ?
You know how tight lids on sport’s drink bottles can be sometimes? These grip things are wonderful, aren’t they? [Hold one up]
Can you imagine standing there with one of these in your hand, keeping it to yourself, while someone, even someone you know really well, struggles to get to that refreshing drink? Of course not! You would gladly share what you had to make things better for someone else. You wouldn’t just keep it to yourself if someone needed it!
But this is exactly what the church does when we do not share the gospel with those in need. We sit with the keys to the waters of baptism in our hands. Meanwhile, neighbors around us are desperately thirsty to know that God loves them through Jesus Christ.
Maybe that is easier said than done. It certainly seems that Philip had it easier than we do. After all, the Spirit of God seemingly transported him to the Ethiopian man’s side and compelled him to share the gospel! It seems like all Philip did was show up and God did the rest.
If we were to be evangelists, do you think it would be like that for us? How could we partner with God? How could we be authentic to who we are, not trying to be some stereotype or push something over on someone?
How would the Spirit work with us? Where would the Spirit of God send us?
Who would be on our pathway?
Friends, I invite you to join me in this New Year to reclaim the true meaning of the word, “evangelism.” I know that the word has been hijacked by some shady Christian evangelists in the past, but my goodness, we need to reclaim this word in our Christian vocabulary.
What would it look like for us to be evangelists in the best sense of that word?
Before, we embark on this evangelism journey, let me offer some thoughts on what I don’t mean by evangelism.
By evangelism, I don’t mean that we go down to the student center and judge college students on the kind of clothing they wear. I also don’t mean that we hand out religious tracks that say something like, “Do you know where you’re going to spend eternity?”
And by evangelism, I don’t mean that we start a new prayer ministry where if you donate $500 to the church, we’ll send you a ceramic angel that Pastor Robert prayed over.
Evangelism also doesn’t mean that we try to convince people to accept God in their lives with our clever arguments.
And lastly, being an evangelist doesn’t mean that you have to put several Christian bumper stickers on the back of your car that show the Christian fish symbol swallowing the word, “Darwin.”
By evangelism, I mean that we get back to its original meaning which is simply sharing the good news of our faith with others.
And so, I am inviting us to simply be willing to share with others how God is at work in our lives. We’ve been calling these “Thin Place” moments where we are on the lookout to see how heaven and earth overlap in our ordinary lives.
These “Thin Place” moments happen all of the time. It’s just a matter of being attentive to their occurrences in our lives and then sharing them with others. These experiences are often not even that dramatic, but they are powerful moments where God is present in a very real way.
Let me share a simple Thin Place moment that happened to me. It was when our church hosted one of the university choral concerts this past fall. It was during intermission and I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys who were standing just outside our front entrance. They wanted to get a breath of fresh air.
During the conversation, they told me that they were from out of town. One of them told me that they don’t attend any church because they said how churches often come across judgmental toward others.
In the course of our conversation, I pointed over to our outdoor prayer cross and I told them about all the prayer requests we get in that box each week, mostly from college students. And I said how we put that prayer cross there because we want people to know that we are a church that cares and that we truly want to be a church of open minds, open hearts, and open doors.
After our conversation, I went back into our church entrance. A couple of minutes later, I looked outside, and I noticed that these two guys were filling out prayer cards there at the prayer cross.
Now, I didn’t do all that much. I simply pointed to our prayer cross and it connected with them. In that moment I felt God’s presence in a very real way.
See, I love sharing these everyday God moments with you and when we share these with each other.
And it’s been my experience that people inside AND outside the church are open to hearing us share these experiences of where we see God at work in our lives.
That’s what it means to be an evangelist. To simply share with others how God is at work in your life.
I love this prayer written by Josh Thomas to encourage us to share our faith with others. Here’s the prayer:
Lord Christ, help your people to seek opportunities to share a word about you with others. Move us beyond our shyness and fear, so that we can speak the word you give. Guide us to speak a true word and a good one, so we attract, not repel; and touch our ears that we may listen first, before we trust our tongues to speak in your Name. Amen.
I love that prayer because it prompts us to share the good news of our faith with others.
A family shared one of the most memorable Christmases they ever had. It was the last Christmas they spent at their grandparents’ house. The grandfather had Parkinson’s disease.
Soon, they would move to an assisted living center. It had been their family’s tradition to gather around the Christmas tree and listen to the granddad read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.
This year, when Granddad tried to read, he could barely move his Parkinson’s-locked jaws. He just couldn’t manage to speak the words aloud. The family sat there and watched him struggle. No one seemed to know what to do. Should they say something? Would it hurt his pride if someone helped him?
No one did anything for what seemed to be a very long time. But Emily, the 6-year-old granddaughter, had just learned to read. She knew exactly what to do. She quietly tiptoed over to his chair and plopped herself beside him. Then, taking his finger into her hand, she helped him point to each word, saying them out loud with him as they read along together:
“Unto you is born this day a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
“Do you know what you’re reading?” Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch. The man nearly begged, “How can I unless someone guides me?”
So Phillip went and sat beside him.
Who will God lead you to sit beside?
[Based on the resource, “Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism,” Chalice Press, 2008]
Small Group Questions
Acts 8:26-37 & Mark 1:4-11
January 7, 2018
The word, “evangelism” is often seen in a negative light today because people associate that word with being pushy, preachy, and judgmental.
What comes to mind when you think of the word, “evangelism?”
Our Acts scripture tells the story of how Phillip helped someone (the Ethiopian eunuch) who was considered an outsider hear the story about Jesus and receive baptism.
Why do you think Phillip was willing to take the risk to share the good news of his faith with this man?
If the word, “evangelism” simply means sharing with others about the good news of our faith and how God is present in our day to day lives, evangelism takes on a positive meaning.
What are the barriers that keep us from sharing how God is at work in our lives and who Jesus is to us?
Practice being an evangelist by sharing with a partner a recent time in how you have experienced God at work in your everyday life.
As a group, say this pray together:
Lord Christ, help us to seek opportunities to share a word about you with others. Move us beyond our shyness and fear, so that we can speak the word you give. Guide us to speak a true word and a good one, so we attract, not repel; and touch our ears that we may listen first, before we trust our tongues to speak in your Name. Amen.