August, 2018

Evangelism – Concluding Thoughts

Assistant Pastor Chris Diebold

 

As a general rule, big heavy things don’t turn fast. Zipping around a hairpin turn in a two-seat sports car is one thing. Lumbering down the same road in an 18 wheeler is entirely different. The greater an object’s mass, the more difficult it is to overcome inertia. Think about how much easier it is to push a toddler on a swing set than a grown man. Or consider that it takes a cargo ship miles to turn around. A lot of work needs to be put into turning something heavy; patience is needed to see results.

This principle of physics is a helpful framework for our concluding thoughts on evangelism. If it is an appropriate metaphor for the rate of change in our personal and church lives, then it is helpful in that it offers to us a realistic expectation for changing our attitudes and actions related to evangelism. That is to say, the reality is that making evangelistic encounters an intentional part of your life will take time because you are more like an 18 wheeler than a sports car, more like a grown man on a swing set than a toddler. The remainder of this reflection will consider the means by which we encumber ourselves and the solution to our encumbrance.

At the beginning of July, I mentioned that fear of man is the number one reason cited by Christians for why they do not evangelize. This fear is rooted for some in a sense of inadequacy. I don’t know enough theology to defend the hope that I have. For others, it is rooted in the unknown. How will my family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers react if I share my faith? For everyone who experiences it, this fear of man has weight to it. Though we cannot measure in a physical sense the weight of fear, it lays heavy on those who experience it. As a heavy burden, fear of man weighs down the one who bears it so that fatigue creeps into each day. It slows you down, and makes turning around a slow process.

There are many other things that weigh us down. The cares of this world and the demands of hectic lives are only two examples. These weights encourage us to continue moving in the same direction. Just as the 19 wheeler resists the turn of the steering wheel as it lumbers down the highway, so our heavily laden lives resist any turning from our present course. And since evangelism is for many of us not on our present course, it makes sense why turning to a new course will take time for us.

At this point, I want to emphasize the biblical mandate to evangelize. In his biblical theological reflection on evangelism, Pastor Donny cited John Stott’s summary statement to that effect. “It is the Bible that lays upon us the responsibility to evangelize the world, gives us a gospel to proclaim, tells us how to proclaim it, and promises us that it is God’s power for salvation to every believer.” Moreover, the Apostle Peter acknowledges the weight of fear with respect to proclaiming the good news, yet he still directs the church to be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the church’s hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). So, we have a responsibility and an expectation to evangelize.

With that in mind, resistance to evangelism reveals a heart encumbered by the burdens of this world, whether fear, the cares of this world, the demands of hectic lives that distract us, or something else. Consider your own reaction to evangelism. What is your first response? Do you immediately resist it by pointing out all the ways it won’t work? Do you dismiss it as the work of the church but not you individually? Do you lament the infertile ground of our present culture and abandon all hope of conversion? Resistance to a lifestyle of evangelism reveals how heavy laden your heart is. The greater the resistance, the heavier the burdens on your heart are.

But what is the solution? Certainly it is not to try harder or do better on your own. If you’re behind the steering wheel of an 18 wheeler, you don’t turn the wheel sharper to get the truck to turn around. That just ends with all your cargo strewn about the road. Rather, in the words of the well-known philosopher-theologian Carrie Underwood, the solution is this: “Jesus, take the wheel.” Or, to change the metaphor and be biblical, the solution is this: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). Our solution is to take on the easy yoke of our Lord Jesus Christ to ease the burden.

But how do we get to this solution? In a word, prayer. Pray that God would unburden your life. Pray that God would open your eyes to the spiritual needs of your family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. Pray that God would give you opportunity to present his life-transforming grace to those around you. As you pray, consider also how you can be specific. Pray for specific occasions with specific people.

Then, do not resist the prompting of the Holy Spirit when you find yourself in exactly the situation for which you prayed.

Evangelism – Exiting Evangelistic Encounter

Assistant Pastor Chris Diebold

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at evangelism from the perspective of three key words: celebrate, serve, and ask. This week we look at our fourth and final key word: exit. For all the words that have been written about engaging in evangelism, our last consideration takes up the final question from last week. What happens if you extend an invitation to someone and he or she shoves it back in your face? The answer is you exit the encounter.

Rico Tice, minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, UK, tells the story of an encounter he once had with a neighbor. They were at the neighborhood playground watching their children play. As they were talking, Rico asked his neighbor if he would be interested in reading the Bible. His neighbor politely declined, and their conversation continued on as usual.

When I first heard Rico tell this story, my reaction was negative. “How could you give up so easily?!” But the reality is that Rico’s actions were far more biblical and reasonable than my reaction. For the rest of this reflection, we’ll consider the biblical grounds for exiting evangelistic encounters, the reasonableness of exiting, and some practical steps related to making an exit.

First of all, it is biblical to exit evangelistic encounters. As Jesus sends out the Twelve to proclaim the gospel message, he gives them plain instructions on exiting encounters in which the hearers do not receive the word. “And he said to them, ‘Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them'” (Mark 6:10-11). The disciples were not instructed to strive endlessly with those who rejected the Word of God; rather, they were to proclaim the Word and move on if it was not received.

Paul followed this same procedure, which we see throughout the book of Acts. In the latter half of Acts, we read of Paul’s missionary journeys around the Mediterranean. As he moves from city to city, we read how he exited encounters. For example, on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas traveled to Iconium. The book of Acts succinctly describes Paul’s exit from that evangelistic encounter: “When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel” (14:1-7). Paul and Barnabas remained to preach until their lives were sought. But this wasn’t a suicide mission, so they exited the situation and continued to preach elsewhere.

So, it is biblical to exit evangelistic encounters at whatever point the door closes. And when we consider it more deeply, there is a theological foundation that makes exiting reasonable. In the first place, exiting evangelistic encounters testifies to the fact that when God’s Word goes out from him, it never returns void but always accomplishes God’s purposes for it. How can God’s Word be said to accomplish God’s purposes if it is rejected? Paul answers this question in 2 Corinthians: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:15-16). Your evangelistic encounters can be redemptive, or they can be condemnatory. Either way, God’s purpose is accomplished. That’s a sobering truth, indeed.

Second, as I preached last week, nobody has ever been saved by sheer logical reasoning. No amount of revelation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart will bring that person to saving faith. If we refuse to exit evangelistic encounters, then we’re essentially placing ourselves in a place that is only proper to the Holy Spirit. This is an encouraging theological foundation. It’s not your responsibility to reason so effectively that you “win” someone to Christ. Do what God has asked of you, but leave the conversion to Him.

I’ll conclude with a few practical steps. First, know where the exits are. Be aware enough as you engage with someone to know how to exit the encounter. If you’re being shown the exit, take it. It’s much harder to exit graciously when you’re far along the road of attempting conversion by sheer logical reasoning.

Second, be mindful that what you’re called to do is exit a specific encounter. Paul returned to Iconium even after the town tried to kill him (Acts 14:21). Don’t write somebody off forever. Exit an encounter, but be ready to engage again as God gives you opportunity.

Finally, be gracious as you exit evangelistic encounters. Even in your exiting, you are a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. If somebody slams the door in your face as you invite them to consider why your savior is so important to you, don’t begrudge the rebuff. “Bless those who persecute you. … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom 12:14, 17).

So, as you celebrate fellow image bearers by serving them, ask them simple questions to engage in evangelistic encounters. But don’t be afraid to exit, for it is a biblical and reasonable thing to do.

Evangelism – Asking Simple Questions

Assistant Pastor Chris Diebold

In this third of four installments on evangelism, we turn to an important word: ask. As a reminder, the four key words we’re reflecting on to frame our evangelism are celebrate, serve, ask, and exit. So let’s think about what it looks like to move from serving fellow image bearers to asking simple questions.

In order to highlight the importance of asking in relationship to serving, we need to return to those biting words of Senator Cory Booker from last week. His summary statement was this: “In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.” Now, the idea is not new; maybe you heard it like this: actions speak louder than words.

But there is a fatal flaw in this argument, and I think the doctrine of revelation helps us here. The doctrine of revelation tells us that God has revealed himself in a general way through creation, but also in a special way through his Word. General revelation is analogous to communication via actions. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1) because they communicate what God has done. Special revelation is analogous to communication via words. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2a). Now, which speaks louder, general or special revelation? Can anyone be saved by general revelation? To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, by no means!

Why is that? Because humanity in its fallen state misunderstands God’s actions (general revelation) apart from God’s words (special revelation). God certainly “speaks” when he acts, but we misunderstand the message apart from the proper context. So, God’s Word is the proper context by which we properly understand God’s “speech” through action. So, Calvin says,

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of the Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.[1]

With the spectacles of Scripture, God’s words, we see God’s actions clearly. So, in reality actions can’t speak louder than words because they need the words to bring things into focus.

Returning to Senator Booker’s words, let’s consider the ramifications of words without action as well as action without words. If somebody proclaims, “Jesus is my Lord,” while at the same time their actions are not consistent with the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then that person is a hypocrite. Anyone who encounters such a person can identify clearly the problem.

But if another person cares for the widow and orphan, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned, and gives drink to the thirsty, while at the same time never proclaiming that these things are done out of thankful acknowledge for God’s mercy found in Jesus Christ, then that person is a moralist. The real problem is that nobody can identify clearly the problem. The outward actions will be interpreted variously, but if they are not interpreted correctly, then they will have no eternal impact.

One final example before getting to the actual topic of this reflection. Suppose that your lesbian friend invites you to her wedding; maybe she asks you to be a bridesmaid. If actions speak louder than words, then all you need to do is decline the invitation. Your friend will understand what you mean to communicate without the need to explain yourself with words, right? Wrong. Why did you decline? Apart from words, will your friend know that you believe that saying hard things with love now is the way to win your friend to true faith in Jesus Christ?

So we must urgently talk to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers about spiritual things, because the plain fact of Scripture is that people who don’t know Jesus go to hell. And because words more clearly communicate our love for our neighbor, we need to use words. One way to do this is to extend invitations. Ask your family or friends if they ever think about what will happen to them when they die. Ask your neighbors or coworkers where they get their code of conduct. Ask your family or friends if they want to read the Bible with you. Ask your neighbors or coworkers if they want to go through the Life Explored series with you.

Asking a simple question has the potential to open the door to conversations you never thought possible. Just think about how you feel when you receive invitations. Being invited into a conversation is much more pleasant than being dragged into one. So, ask your coworker where she goes to church. Ask your neighbor if he has a Bible at home. Ask your friend if he’s interested in doing something really weird like going to church. Ask your family member why she stopped going to church.

What happens if you extend an invitation to someone and they shove it back in your face? Let’s chat about that next week.

[1] Calvin, Instit. 1.6.1

Evangelism – Serving Fellow Image Bearers

Last week, we considered the fact that every man, woman, and child is made in the image of God. That is a fact worth celebrating because it reminds us that every individual possesses inherent dignity. When we understand the surpassing worth of an image bearer, we celebrate.

We also serve. For one way in which we celebrate our image-of-God-bearing neighbor is by loving, and one way we love our neighbor is by serving. Thus, our second of four installments on evangelism will focus on serving fellow image bearers.

Not too long along, a friend of mine reminded me of a statement made by Cory Booker, U.S. Senator from New Jersey:

Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children. Before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

If nothing else, Senator Booker’s words remind us that the world is watching. Though I’ll take issue with his statement next week, he nevertheless puts his finger on the way that much of the world views Christians.

Turning to Scripture, though, the letter of James has strong words of warning for anyone who might think that celebrating fellow image bearers doesn’t include serving them. In the context of describing living faith, James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16).

From this example, we can draw two principles. First, celebrating fellow image bearers must include your hands in addition to your head and heart. There is no profit reveling in the magnificent truth that God created you and me and every other person in his image if it never overflows into service. No doctrine, no matter how glorious, is worthwhile unless it results in action. Theology apart from doxology, doctrine apart from worship, celebration apart from service is but a counterfeit of the truth. Our celebration must include service.

Second, and related, serving fellow image bearers is not extraordinary. James’ example of service toward fellow image bearers is not drawn from a dramatic missionary endeavor. He does not appeal to anything spectacular. Instead, he points us to simple service. Service looks like helping our neighbor meet his basic needs throughout the course of our everyday lives. Service doesn’t have to look like moving heaven and earth each and every day.

Dr. Dan Doriani picks up on this idea and applies it to work:

We know we should consecrate our work to God, but we think we love our neighbors outside of work. … [W]e may think, “I love my neighbor by bringing meals to the sick, by collecting for food pantries, and by serving in a homeless shelter.” Fair enough, but far more people love their neighbors by working on farms, in grocery stores, and in restaurants. When we grow good food, transport and package it well, preventing waste and decay, when we sell grain, meat, vegetables, and fruit at fair prices, we also love our neighbor.[1]

When we serve fellow image bearers throughout the course of our everyday lives at work, in our neighborhoods, or as we run errands, we make the most of the divine appointments scheduled for us. When our celebration of the image of God in man overflows into serving fellow image bearers, we avoid James’ charge of a counterfeit faith.

So what does this mean for us, particularly in relation to evangelism? It means that faithful service towards others is an ingredient in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean you have to labor serving your neighbor for six months until maybe you then have earned the right to tell that person about Jesus. Such thinking would be wrongheaded. If someone asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, then by all means make a defense!

But consider this: if you set out to make chocolate chip cookies and during preparation you don’t add sugar, then the end product will be something other than chocolate chip cookies. Those who eat your cookies won’t know the full delight of chocolate chip cookies. Those who learn how to make chocolate chip cookies from you will never actually make the right cookie.

If we evangelize the nations apart from serving/loving our neighbor, then we end up doing something other than evangelism. If the mind is converted to the right way of thinking about God but the heart and the hands remain dead, then what has happened is not evangelism. An ingredient is missing, and the end product is not actually true conversion. There is no profit in bringing your neighbor to a dead orthodoxy.

So let’s celebrate image bearers by serving them so that we can show forth the love of Christ that has transformed our minds, hearts, and our hands.

[1] Dan Doriani, “A Short Theology of Social Reform,” Place for Truth, 10 July 2018, http://www.placefortruth.org/blog/short-theology-social-reform.

 

Assistant Pastor Christopher Diebold