(Preached at Alma United Church on November 19, 2017)
What comes to mind when I say the words “evangelism” or “evangelist”?
Often we think of:
- Asking for money
- Door-to-door religious “sales teams”
- Someone else—not me!
- Paul, or the disciples, or John the Baptist, but most definitely not me!
But the word evangelism comes from the Greek euaggelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news,” so what it really means is sharing the gospel, and an evangelist is someone who shares the gospel.
In all my 57 years in the United Church, I have to say that I am currently preaching the one and only sermon I’ve ever heard on evangelism. That just isn’t us—we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison; we can love our neighbours as ourselves. We can even dabble in politics and try and change public policy for the better. But offer to pray for complete strangers? To tell them that God loves them, and that God sent Jesus to take away the burden of their sin? To invite them to church???
We aren’t really evangelists, are we? Aren’t good works enough?
In our minds, evangelism is associated with fundamentalism. Shouting Christians picketing funerals and telling others they’re going to Hell. Billboards in the middle of farmer’s fields, warning of Judgement Day. Are you ready to meet your maker? Condemnation.
Or we’re so respectful of the rights of others to have their own beliefs that are different from ours, we ignore our right and duty to share our own experiences of God.
Or we’re ashamed of the past sins of the church—anti-Semitism, slavery, inquisitions, forced conversions, and the almost total annihilation of Indigenous cultures—that we decide that the best way to avoid sinning in the future is to keep our faith to ourselves.
In our effort to distinguish ourselves from our fundamentalist sisters and brothers, we keep our faith to ourselves.
I think that we’re making a big mistake!
Christianity is an evangelical faith. No matter how much we might wish it, the Christian faith doesn’t spread organically from generation to generation, and people won’t walk through our front doors just because there are front doors with a sign out front. We have built it, and they are not coming!
Over the past few decades, I have heard many theories about why the mainline churches are in decline. People are too busy. The service is at the wrong time. The service is on the wrong day. People don’t need God any more. God is dead. God never existed. The church is too judgemental. The church isn’t judgemental enough. We need to throw away the Bible. We need to go back to the Bible.
All of those excuses are just that—excuses. Because in the past little while I’ve observed that despite the fact that the majority of our churches are declining, there are some which are growing. And those growing churches seem to have one thing in common.
The members of those churches regularly ask friends and neighbours to join them. They share their faith freely. Those churches advertise their presence.
Think on this: when was the last time you saw or heard any advertisements for a United Church, or any mainline church, for that matter?
When and if you saw one, was it a bold, colourful ad with compelling detail, or was it a little black and white job in the bottom corner of an inside newspaper page: Nowhere United Church, Service at 10:30 am. Nursery provided. Join us!
Bring a pillow and an extra blanket and catch up on your sleep.
And how do we think about those people “out there”, and about why they don’t come to church?
They’re lazy—they just want to sleep in on Sunday.
They’re busy—the kids have hockey, and some of them work.
They just don’t care—God isn’t on their mind.
Do we ever think this:
They have no idea what we do in here on Sunday morning, or why we do it.
The only things many people know about the Christian faith are what they’ve seen and heard on the news, and so often, what they’ve seen and heard is not flattering.
They don’t even know we’re here! Before you think that this is ridiculous—after all, there’s this building, and we’ve got a sign out front, think on this—at the board meeting on Sunday, it was brought to our attention that the construction workers who are rebuilding the road had stored sod and fill and equipment on our lot because they thought no one was using the building!
Jamie Holtom, at North Bramalea United Church, has been asked by couples he has married, “Can anyone just come to your services?”
People really don’t know anything about Christianity any more. The idea that faith or religion might have any value to them is a totally foreign idea to most people.
So many people out there are hurting; hurting in the same ways that people were hurting 2000 years ago, when Jesus walked this earth, preaching and healing.
They are dealing with strained and broken relationships.
They are poor, and even those with jobs are having trouble making ends meet.
They are rich, and wondering why their lives seem so empty.
They are lost, and can’t seem to discover their purpose for being.
They are anxious and afraid, and can’t find peace.
They are alone, grieving, hungry, thirsty, naked.
They are deeply mired in sin and can’t ever admit to the truth, because to do so would burden them beyond their capacity to cope.
And we are here, and we know that God can help, and we keep our arms crossed and our mouths shut. We know the gospel saves lives, because it saved ours, and we keep that truth to ourselves.
I love that text from Romans:
Everyone who calls, “Help, God!” gets help.
But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? How can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard about Jesus or God? How can they hear if no one tells them? And who is going to tell them unless someone is sent to do it?
The point is this: Before you trust, you have to listen. But unless Christ’s word is preached, there’s nothing to listen to.
Pen Jillette of the duo Penn and Teller is a magician, comedian, and avowed atheist. Yet he respects evangelical Christians, going so far as to comment on the kindness of a man who gave him a Bible. In the clip on YouTube where he talks about that incident, he makes a comment that should be disturbing to all non-evangelical Christians.
He asks, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
It’s like you go to Canadian Tire and buy a shiny new life jacket.
Then you walk along beside a river, and you come across someone in the water. Their arms are flailing; their eyes are bulging out of their head. They’re obviously drowning.
Do you throw them the life jacket, or do you keep on walking?
Would you say to yourself:
- They won’t appreciate my help.
- What if I miss?
- That life jacket is brand new and I don’t want to get it wet and dirty. I don’t even know if it will work!
- I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes.
- Will I leave myself open to a lawsuit?
- Stupid person—what’s she doing in the river if she can’t swim, anyhow!
Of course you wouldn’t say any of those things—you’d throw them the life jacket! Find a branch to reach out. Call 911 on your cell. Yell for others to come help you!
So why do we all too often keep silent when we see someone hurting, when sharing our faith in God might help?
Evangelism isn’t about filling our pews and our offering plates. It’s not about keeping this or any other congregation going and the building open. We don’t evangelise to validate our views and to try and make others be like us.
We evangelize because people need God’s help, but they can’t ask because they don’t know about God and what God has done for us through Jesus, and they don’t know because they haven’t heard, and they haven’t heard because we have built our cities underground; we have hidden our lamps under bushels; we have closed our mouths at the wrong times, and said the wrong things when we opened them.
We are all called, not just to give of our time and our money, not just to come to church and to pray and to read the Bible, but to share our faith with those in the world who are lost and wandering.
In closing, I have a few pointers from Jamie Holtom about how to share.
First, take the time to think about what God has done for you. When in your life has God been with you? How has God helped you through the difficult times in your life?
Second, think about times when it is easy to share your enthusiasm for something you’ve enjoyed—a new recipe or restaurant; a movie you’ve loved or a concert you enjoyed. What would you say about it to others? Would you share your enthusiasm? That’s evangelism!
Now translate that to church. What do you enjoy about coming to church that others might enjoy? Share that with someone.
Third, take an extra sixty seconds when you’re talking with someone. Instead of asking, “How are you today?” which invites the answer, “Fine,” ask, “What’s been going on for you lately?” Then listen! Let others know they’ve been heard, and that you care. Sometimes, that’s all they need.
Fourth, if they’re really hurting, offer to pray with and for them. Ask first. Give them the chance to say no. But even non-religious people will often say yes, and it helps.
The example I like best of this is told not by a church-goer, but by a young lady who describes herself as “not very religious.” She’d had a fight with her boyfriend. She was in a car crying while he was out doing an errand, and a random Christian knocked on her car window, asked her what was wrong, and offered to pray for her. She accepted, and in less than five minutes, her whole attitude had changed. Things weren’t fixed, but they were now not so hard to handle.
“Thank you, Random Christian,” she says. “You helped more than you will know.”
Holtom says that the chance to share Christ can happen any time, anywhere, to any one of us. Sharing Christ doesn’t need to be obtrusive or scary. We don’t have to convert anyone or prove anything. Our job is simply to be open and honest about who we are and why we’re here.
Our job is to invite, not to compel.
So before we leave the bullseye, I’m going to ask you to do one last assignment. I’m here until New Year’s Eve, and in the remaining six weeks, I’m going to ask every one of you to try and share your faith with at least one non-churchgoer who might need God, and if you’re really brave, to invite one person who currently does not attend any faith community to join you in worship.
Scary? Maybe. Uncomfortable? Definitely.
But life, and God’s blessings, often begin at the edge of your comfort zone!