Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sermon on Evangelism

Evangelism is a tough topic to preach on. Words just wouldn't seem to do justice, so I created the above video and played it as it is listed in the sermon below. Just two more sermons to go before our new minister arrives. I'm ready for a break!

Expanding the Walls of the Kingdom

In undertaking this series discussing the church, I knew that at some point we’d have to talk about evangelism. There was no getting around it. To talk about the church is to, at some point, talk about evangelism. You can call it our “commission,” our “mission,” our “duty,” or whatever, but it is difficult to read through the Bible without coming away with a strong feeling of personal conviction and clear picture of our responsibility to “reach the lost,” “save souls,” “proselytize the masses,” “witness to others,” or any number of other ways we’ve come up with saying it.

It has taken me some time to really formulate an idea of what evangelism is . . . I’m still not exactly sure, but I feel as though I’ve made some good strides. I am half tempted to ask you, this morning, what evangelism is. Do any of us really know? What’s the point? What does it look like? How do we go about doing it? Are any of us doing it?

As I set out to put this sermon together this week, I had compelling images flood my mind and I just couldn’t shake them. It helped me understand where I felt we needed to go this morning, but I found it difficult to convey it very well with words. I found a few moments in the week and have tried my best to convey it through a different kind of medium. I’d like to share with you the following video I put together for today’s sermon, in hopes of capturing a little bit of what was in my mind.

[Play “evangelism video” created for today’s sermon.]

I don’t get artistic too often, but I had many images and songs and thoughts running through my mind, I just couldn’t determine another way that would adequately portray them. If you were impacted by this the way that it was intended, you should feel a little confused. “What’s he trying to say?” you may be asking. “Is he condoning that radical behavior? Does he think that’s what we should be doing?” I felt as though this would give us a good place to jump off this morning.

Evangelism is important. I’m not sure I could start off with anything more obvious and straightforward than that? There is little doubt in my mind that if we surveyed everyone in here today about the importance of evangelism, it would register high, really high. It’s in the heart of our mission statement here at Alum Creek, “Serve the Savior, Build the Body, Love the Lost.”

Here’s another point I feel strongly about, if you were to conduct a poll of the same people asking how much time and effort they gave personally to the task of evangelism, it would register low, really low. Think about it, how would you answer these questions?

· When’s the last time you shared the Gospel with someone who had never heard it before?

· When’s the last time you shared your testimony of faith with someone?

· When’s the last time this church baptized someone who wasn’t “one of our own?”

It doesn’t take much looking around before you begin to realize a pretty big disconnect from what we say and what we do in the area of evangelism. I don’t mean this as a knock on us . . . I mean I do, but not just on us. I met with a youth ministry professor back in the fall of last year and we got to talking about evangelism and a concern for lost people. He works extensively with youth ministers all over the country, so I asked him if he knew of any youth program that was especially focused on evangelism. They didn’t even have to be good at it, but as long as they were trying. He didn’t know of any – in the entire country. This is an area lacking in many, many churches.

I have seen this discrepancy my whole life. I grew up in a church that talked incessantly about “reaching the lost” and “preaching the Good News,” but very rarely have I seen this in action – no, not very rarely, never. I have never met anyone that I would even consider as overtly evangelistic. This has led me down a path of great disillusionment in regards for church. I’ve heard a lot of talk about reaching out, but haven’t seen any action.

I am willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, however. I think there is a fair basis to our lack of evangelistic effort: we’re not sure how to go about it. I mean, what is evangelism?

For Churches of Christ, I think that we are in a bit of a crisis mode when it comes to evangelism. The problem is that for most of us, the word evangelism conjures images like the film showed. For many of us, evangelism looks like Gospel Meetings and knocking on doors. It is correspondence Bible study classes and Jule Miller filmstrips. It is bus ministry and vacation bible school. It is debates and revivals and crusades. Essentially, to many of us, evangelism has come to mean antiquated systems and programs that we know don’t work. When we look at the people who work with us and live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools, we know they don’t work. And yet nothing has come to replace them.

“Outreach” has been one of the biggest challenges facing this church since I arrived. I have been in many a leadership meeting here as we’ve discussed what exactly is “outreach?” We don’t know what it looks like in today’s world. The result? Our emphasis on evangelism goes on . . . largely in vain.

What I’d like to be able to do this morning is to study the plan that the Bible gives on evangelizing the masses. Unfortunately, you can look and look and we’re not going to find it. It’s just not there. The Bible offers no surefire way to “save souls.” People have studied Paul’s method and Peter’s method, and that’s all great and there are plenty of things to learn from that, but there is no blow-by-blow account of how to win your neighbor’s soul. And that, I believe, is a message we need to hear.

In the early days of the Restoration Movement – the American religious revival that gave birth to Churches of Christ, there was a popular preacher/leader who popularized what became known as the five-finger model for evangelism. Walter Scott outlined the Christian story as follows: a person need to believe, repent, and be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. That was six points, which eventually was shortened to five making for an easy-to-remember exercise that everyone could share with their friends and neighbors, and eventually led to widespread evangelism.

Those of us to come along in the 20th century are probably more familiar with the “plan of salvation” which evolved from the five-finger exercise as “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Most of us have probably heard many, many sermons ending with a near-cadenced version of this “plan.”

Now . . . I probably should prepare everyone because I am entering hallowed waters here, but I think it is an important message for us to hear. I want us to consider our revered “plan of salvation.” Is there really a plan to salvation? Of course, God has a plan, but that’s not the kind of plan to which this is referring. We have assumed there is a plan out there for everyone to follow – an easily-enacted plan that cuts across culture and situation. But is that even what the Bible teaches? It certainly never claims that for itself (“plan of salvation” is totally foreign to the text.)

We probably wish we could hang on to the “plan” because it makes things simple. You lead people through a step-by-step process naturally from one to the next to the next. Nearly every person in here could probably preach a sermon with the five-step process as a sermon outline considering the many sermons you’ve heard addressed to this. The five points are valid. They are all important. I am not here to try to invalidate any of them. However, I am afraid that what we have done is constructed a non-biblical step-by-step process that non-Christians may have trouble connecting with. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the Bible gives any method. Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost much differently than Paul preaches in Athens in Acts 17. Philip finds the Ethiopian eunuch studying his little heart out and directs his thoughts in the Scripture while Simon the sorcerer was convicted by the miraculous gifts of the disciples. It was a different place. They were different people.

To me, this is the perfect place in our sermon series to talk about evangelism. We have been reminded week in and week out that the church is built on the foundation of a profession of Christ as Lord. It begins and ends here. That is the story we profess. That is the heart of our message. We believe that we have a story that makes all the other stories make sense. And I am convinced that in order for us to once again find the place of evangelism in our church, we must find our identity of Christ-followers.

So what do we need to do? Isn’t that what you’re waiting for me to answer? Give us the answers, point to the Scriptures, help us nail it down. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I can do that. If you’ve followed me this far, I think we’ve made an important step forward – realizing that coming to a faith in God is more complicated than a “plan” allows for.

I think Paul does give us some guidance in what he tells the Corinthians. Read 1 Corinthians 10: 19 – 23. In this brief passage, Paul purports a major emphasis – an emphasis we must relearn. Paul says that he did everything to win as many as possible. That was his objective. That was his goal. That was his meaning in life. He lived every day for those who had not yet heard. He prayed constantly for those who had not yet given their lives to God. His message transcended culture, social class, religious background – one thing remained constant, those who hadn’t heard, he wanted to hear. He was constantly aware of those around him who hadn’t heard, who didn’t know Jesus.

And then there’s us. We toss up a lackadaisical and occasional prayer. We’re more worried about how well we match up to our neighbors than to whether they’ve given their life fully to Christ. We have a career path. We have goals. We are driven . . . but drive to what? What are our goals? What do we hope for in the end?

We get so caught up in the many, many things around us that don’t matter. We need to start focusing on the things that do. What sets us apart? What makes us different? It is our WAY! The WAY we do things sets us apart from the way others do things. The story that gives our life meaning and value illuminates every day. That sets us apart from those who don’t have that . . . and if it doesn’t set us apart . . . what does that say about what’s really there?

Read Romans 9: 1 – 5. Here, Paul speaks of his absolute devastation that his people, the Jews, haven’t accepted Christ as the messiah. He wishes he could give up his place in the kingdom – his very salvation, that they would hear the Gospel. Wow. I mean, I’ve been wrestling with this one for awhile. He wanted his people to hear so badly, to believe so much, that he wishes that Christ would take him out of this stead and replace them.

Then there’s us . . . then there’s us. What do we do with this text? What do you do with it? It’s got to hit us between the eyes. It’s convicting. It’s compelling. It’s scary. If we really got it . . . I mean really, imagine how we’d live our lives. Recklessly. The most important thing in the world is that others would given their lives to God.

Rick Richardson says this about the state of evangelism among Christians,

People, Christian and not, perceive the good news as neither good nor , because it doesn’t seem to have much to say that’s compelling about the life in the world . . . We have replaced the good news of the dynamic, transforming, inbreaking rule of God to set all things right with the somewhat static and stale message of the death and resurrection of Jesus to set a couple of things right for individuals to believe.[1]

Perhaps he’d say we’ve turned a masterpiece into a “plan.” It’s time we re-ignite our passion for lost people. At the heart is our love and passion for God. In the great hymn from the video, “I love to tell the story . . . of Jesus and his love.”

I love to tell the story,

‘tis pleasant to repeat

What seems, each time I tell it,

more wonderfully sweet.

Whatever we’re to become as a church, whatever we’re to do, whatever ministries we’re to begin or uphold; whatever kind of people we’re to become, we must never stop telling the story.

[1] Rick Richardson. Re-Imagining Evangelism. Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL. 2006. p. 119, 120 – 121.

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