Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on September 13 2009.
John 8:2-11; Galatians 5:22-25; Philippians 2:5-11
Nobody likes to talk about their failures. Which is one reason few of us like to dwell on the subject of evangelism, or the art of reaching others for Christ.
The percentages tell the story. Statistically, only ten percent of any congregation in America claims to have the gift of evangelism, and less than that actually share their faith on a regular basis. That just might explain why 80 to 90 percent of all Protestant churches in America are plateaued or declining.
Those of us who grew up in Baptist churches cut our teeth on the Great Commission that commands us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. But as Bill Hybels observes, even those of us who feel a deep desire to “go” and reach others for Christ often find ourselves perpetually stuck in the “stay” mode.
Because the thought of talking about something as personal as our faith to anybody scares us to death. Because we don’t know enough. Because no approach to evangelism suits us. Because we might offend people. Because the people we talk to might reject us. Because we might fail and make fools of ourselves.
Oh yeah, and we because we don’t have enough hair! (Have you ever noticed how TV evangelists always have big hair?)
It might surprise you to learn I have my own sense of failure in this area. Even though I preach publicly each week on television, and though I have had a hand in leading lots of people to Christ, I feel like I let God down all the time when it comes to reaching others for Christ. I’ve been put in situations where I was supposed to create instant evangelism and instant results and failed miserably. At times I feel responsible for the fact that our congregation does not do better in the area of reaching.
So I was very pleased when our deacons, the lay spiritual leaders of our church, decided to address this issue head on in the Strategic Vision of our church. Like me, they admitted we weren’t exactly setting the world on fire around here when it comes to reaching new people. And like me, they decided that what we did not need was one more evangelism program or formula to follow.
What we need is a change of heart. And a renewed commitment. And a fresh approach to reaching people that fits our church, that is sensitive rather offensive, that exposes people to the very heart of our gracious, loving God.
So we settled on a four week campaign called Just Walk Across the Room (JWAR) to launch us on the journey. Please know that I have no illusion that one four-week emphasis will get us to the Promised Land when it comes to evangelism. But thinking in football terms, if we can move the ball from our own 10 yard line to near mid-field, I’ll be thrilled.
Over the next four weeks we’ll be having a church-wide conversation about this scary topic of evangelism. Most of our Sunday School classes and many of our small groups will be reading the book, Just Walk Across the Room, written by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago. I believe we have distributed all the books we ordered, so if you don’t have a book, feel free to order your own on the Internet or through a Christian book store. By the way, this is one time when reading the book will really be helpful! If you don’t have a class or group to meet with, see Mitzi Moore, and she will assist you in finding a group.
Each Sunday morning for the next month I will be preaching on evangelism. And each Wednesday night I’ll be teaching about it in a video format in Kelly Auditorium. So for this study to have much impact, all of us who can need to walk into rooms where we can be fully exposed to this approach.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that before you can make the journey of reaching others for Christ, you’ve got some prior business to accomplish first. If you remember our church’s mission statement, you’ll recall that it says, “We are a family of faith, seeking to know Christ and make him known.” And you’ll see that the order of things is important. We can’t make Christ known until we know him ourselves. We can’t give away what we don’t have.
So, if you do not yet have your own relationship with Jesus Christ, you are not ready for this journey of evangelism. I’m not here to make you feel guilty about that. It’s just a fact that you need to focus on forming your relationship with Christ before you go any further.
The second, and rarely mentioned prerequisite for reaching is that you are in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ. In other words, you are undergoing the very spiritual formation we have been talking about in recent weeks.
I’m convinced more than ever that the most important thing you bring to the ministry of reaching others is your own transformed soul. As I think about the people who have made the most difference in me spiritually, I realize their noticeable spiritual vitality has had as much if not more impact as their spiritual words.
Maybe you thought spiritual formation was this intensely interior adventure that relieved you of sharing your faith with others—especially if you are an introvert! But Thomas Merton, one of the giants of the spiritual formation movement, reminds us that “God did not give His joy to us for ourselves alone…” “Any joy,” says Merton, “that does not overflow from our souls and help others to rejoice in God does not come to us from God.”
Spiritual formation does not relieve of us the need to reach. It prepares us for reaching. And we will reach because a third prerequisite is in place—a firm belief that the God we know in Jesus Christ is worth knowing by every single person on the face of this earth. A man once told Bill Hybels he never shared his faith with anyone because he didn’t want to inflict anybody else with the burden of God. If that burdensome, fearsome kind of God is the one we carry in our head and heart, we’ll likely never say a word about him.
Friends, we serve a loving God that the whole world needs to hear about. Do you believe that enough to do something about it?
Now, the central image or metaphor of this entire campaign is walking across a room. The key idea is that if we care enough about God’s people, we’ll be willing to walk a few steps across a room, or a yard, or a soccer field to share the love of Christ with them.
The key problem is that we are creatures of comfort who instinctively avoid risk and cling to our safety. We get in our circles of comfort and we’d much rather stay in that cozy place where we know everybody than walk across a room to meet that stranger standing alone who we don’t know, who we may not agree with, who we may not like and they may not like us.
It is this fear of the unknown that keeps us safely locked up in our comfortable Sunday School classes and small groups, in our easy chairs and our padded pews. It is this fear that prevents us from sharing a Jesus who could change the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people around us if he only got the chance.
Most of us are white middle class Christians who happen to live in the South. Which is why it’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like to be a middle-class Black Muslim living in the South. In many social situations, you would likely feel like the odd man or woman out. Most people in the room wouldn’t look like you, talk like you, believe like you. For that reason, most people in the room might ignore you and stick with their own kind.
That’s precisely the situation Bill Hybels describes in the first chapter of his book. But this scenario takes an unexpected turn. After noticing this African-American man standing by himself at a cocktail party, a white Christian man takes the plunge. In other words, he leaves his friends, walks across the room, and strikes up a conversation with this Black Muslim.
Now, here’s what interests me about Bill Hybels’ model of evangelism. I was taught to believe that evangelism only refers to verbally sharing the plan of salvation with someone. But in Bill Hybel’s model, evangelism begins the moment that white man notices a black man standing by himself at the edge of the room. It continues when that white man listens to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in his soul more than the fear inside him that tells him to play it safe and stick with his friends. It continues when the white man spends weeks getting to know the black man over coffee, just listening to him explain the tenets of Islam without saying one word about Christianity. And much later down the road, it culminates in the white man sharing his faith in such a winsome and sensitive way that his African-American friend accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.
Evangelism didn’t start in the Sunday School class or the sanctuary. It started at a cocktail party, of all places, when a man took a walk across a room.
Notice, by the way, that when that man took that walk, he was imitating what God in Jesus Christ did for us. Talk about a circle of comfort—what can be more comfortable than heaven! But God turned his attention from the comforts of heaven to the difficulties of earth when he continued to love human beings who repeatedly spit in his face. And finally, when nothing else worked, God took a walk across the universe in the form of his son, who…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage; rather he made himself nothing…and humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Once Jesus got here, he showed us how to walk across rooms in every conceivable situation. In John 8, Jesus is confronted by a woman caught in the act of adultery. As this quivering, half-naked woman was dragged before him by overly eager Pharisees who smelled blood, you have to wonder if Jesus wasn’t questioning his sanity when he left the comfortable courts of heaven to be dragged through the mud in the courts of the temple.
The Pharisees were the self-appointed overseers of morality whose job it was to straighten everybody out, and/or stone them if they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. To that end, they sprang a trap on an unsuspecting woman committing adultery, while noticeably ignoring the man involved. But in truth the point was just to trap the woman, but to trap Jesus by putting him in an impossible position of either letting the adulteress off the hook and denying the validity of the Law which demanded her execution, or approving her execution and appearing unmerciful.
Jesus knew a trap when he saw one, and could have walked away. But Jesus loved this sinful woman far too much to abandon her. So he took the plunge and walked across the courtyard to her side. First, he doodled in the dirt rather than taking the Pharisee’s bait. Then, he disarmed the Pharisees by inviting those who were sinless to cast the first stone. One by one they dropped their stones and left, frustrated and defeated.
Now surely the greatest evangelist who ever lived will preach a sermon about the dangers of adultery. Or get the woman to admit she’s a sinner, bound for hell. Or review with her a plan of salvation. Or at least give her a tract.
That’s what we’d expect, based on our models of evangelism. But that’s not what Jesus does. Jesus looks the woman in the eye and actually speaks to her—all the Pharisees could do was talk about her. He treats the woman like a human being who matters. He refuses to condemn the woman, to bang her over the head with her own immorality. He chooses instead to lead with grace, not with guilt.
Jesus simply bids the woman to leave her old life of sin behind and enter a new life. End of story! To our knowledge, the two never speak again. We have no idea if the woman did what Jesus asked. And Jesus seems comfortable with not-knowing, and simply leaving the soul of the woman in the hands of God.
Friends, here’s what we need to know. Evangelism done right is not about following formulas or memorizing scripts or getting people saved through our effort. It’s not about banging people over the head with the bible or scaring them with hell or wearing them down with 28 stanzas of “Just As I Am” until they finally crawl to the altar. It’s about being so in love with God and in love with God’s people and so in tune with the Holy Spirit that you are willing to take the plunge and play the role God wants you to play to point people to him. And evangelism done right is one of the most exciting enterprises in the world.
Maybe you don’t believe that today, but four weeks from now I hope you will. So—stay tuned!