Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on September 27 2009.
John 3: 16, 4: 1-15; 5:24
One of the great privileges I have as a pastor is the opportunity to learn people’s life stories, and share them at their funerals. Just this past week, for example, I had the honor of helping retell the story of Harold Dunevant at his funeral, a life story so powerful it’s front page news in today’s Winston-Salem Journal.
Harold lived a relatively normal life until he was 27. He was a tall, handsome man, a bright graduate of WakeForestUniversity where he distinguished himself as the drum major of the band for two years. After college Harold went to work for a men’s clothing store and also served in the National Guard.
Forty years ago today Harold’s life changed forever. He was pulling duty at the local National Guard Armory when a methane-induced explosion occurred, killing three men and severely burning 25 others—including Harold. Harold should have died from sustaining burns over 65% of his body. Or failing that, he should have given up on life and stayed secluded in his home so nobody would have to see his deformed face and body. But Harold chose another way. He got out of the house and impacted the lives of hundreds of people, including many in this congregation. Harold Dunevant inspired me until he drew his last breath, and I was not surprised to see a standing room only crowd at his funeral to celebrate his life story.
Harold’s is just one story among many in this church. The fact is, every one of us has a life story. Many of us consider our own life stories to be relatively blasÃ©. But I believe every life story is fascinating in its own right.
That’s why it’s tragic when people attend church with each other for years and never learn each other’s life stories. You know we are a community of familiar strangers when we know each other’s names but not each other’s stories. These days we are encouraging people around here to spend time going deeper with each other so we will know each other’s stories. Because when you know each other’s stories, you know you are a community of Christ.
It’s also tragic when we don’t share our faith stories – the stories about our relationship with God – with people who are far from God. In his book, Just Walk Across the Room, Bill Hybels calls us “avoiders” if we typically avoid at all costs sharing our own personal stories with God. Some of us may commit the opposite sin of erupting all over non-believers with our personal testimony. My hunch, though, is more of us at FBC are avoiders than erupters.
But Hybels makes it clear that just telling our faith story is not enough. We must tell our story well, because a poorly-told story can do as much if not more damage than an untold story.
In this third week of our JWAR campaign, Bill Hybels pulls no punches when it comes to poorly told stories about our encounters with Christ. Nothing makes Bill bristle more than faith stories that are long-winded and ramble on until the cows come home. Or stories that are fuzzy with multiple plot lines that never seem to have a point. Or stories that use religious lingo like “washed in the blood of the lamb,” language that leaves our unchurched listeners scratching their heads. Or worst of all, faith stories that project an air of righteous superiority, that say in so many words, “I, the pious Christian, am a precious child of God and you, the pathetic sinner, are a despicable child of the Devil.”
Bill is keenly aware of the poor reputation Christians have among non-Christians. Either we never tell our faith stories at all, or we tell them so poorly and so offensively that we drive away the very people we are trying to reach with the love of Christ.
See, the way we tell our stories matters because people remember stories. Preachers know this. We know our listeners will remember our stories and illustrations far longer than anything else about our sermons. Maybe that’s why the greatest communicator of all time, Jesus Christ, uses stories constantly as he communicates the gospel.
Few of us can recite the Sermon on the Mount. But most of us can tell from memory the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Something in our souls loves a story-well told, and stories stick with us long after propositional teachings evaporate from our minds.
My Grandpa Ashburn was the best story-teller I’ve ever known. He gave me advice from time to time, much of which has grown hazy in my mind. But I’ll never forget him telling me when I was a young child that one day when he was just a kid he took string and tied several June bugs to a bucket of blueberries, and then watched that bucket just fly away!
Stories are powerful. Stories stick to us like glue. Which is why Bill Hybels is such a big fan of telling God’s story and our story as we reach others for Christ.
One reason many of us avoid evangelistic conversations is we just don’t know what to say. Perhaps we’re willing to take all the advice we’ve learned so far in our JWAR campaign. We get outside our circles of comfort and begin mingling with people we don’t know, especially people far from God. We develop friendships, discover people’s stories, and listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we reach out to people.
Suppose we take the time to develop a relationship with a new friend, and God provides that long-awaited moment when it seems appropriate to talk about our faith. What now? Do we open to the Bible to the book of Genesis and quote scripture all the way to Revelation? Review the philosophical arguments for the existence of God? Expound theological doctrine? Offer apologetic arguments that answer life’s toughest questions?
These are the very tactics that give most of us sweaty palms! Most of us don’t have seminary degrees to fall back on, and we don’t feel up to the challenge of engaging people this way.
The good news is most of us don’t have to. Yes, there are times and places for biblical exposition and theological argument, and there are well-written books and well-trained people who can help with this. But what most of us need to be ready to do is tell God’s story and our faith story in simple, clear terms that virtually anybody can understand.
If you’ve read Hybels’ book—and I’m thrilled many of you have—you know he gives a simple way to summarize the infinitely complex story of God’s relationship with our world. In all honesty, I used to think intellectual integrity demanded I not reduce God’s activity in the world into simple illustrations like the “Bridge” and the “Morality Ladder.” Bill Hybels uses these illustrations to describe how God graciously saves us from sin and destruction through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. Theology is just too complex for that.
Then, I read about a time when Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, was asked to summarize the body of his thought in his multi-volume, immensely complex signature work, Church Dogmatics. Barth responded, “You can summarize it this way—“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Simplicity can be a good thing! Over the years, I’ve used the Bridge illustration—along with John 3:16—countless times in spiritual conversations with both children and adults. And I feel just fine about that, because I know there will be time and opportunity for more complicated discussions later. On other occasions, I’ve told my own story because it seemed the thing to do.
Again, if you read the book, you know it strongly encourages us all to condense our own faith story into a short presentation of 100 words or less than can be presented in a minute or so. And, it encourages us to structure our story around these themes: what we were like before coming to know Christ, how we met Christ, and how we are different since accepting Christ as Savior and Lord.
Some of us are uncomfortable with this approach. For some—especially Baptist preachers—it’s hard to say “Hello” in a minute or so! But an even more fundamental problem is that we frankly cannot remember much about our lives before we became Christians, especially if we grew up in church.
Because the church Bill Hybels pastors is a congregation where many adults come to know Christ for the first time, his model makes lots of sense. We could call his faith story model a “conversion” model. But many of us came up with a “nurture” model in which we were introduced to Christ as young children and came to know him gradually over a period of time through the ministries of our church.
Can a faith story modeled on nurture be effectively shared with non-believers? Yes, it can, especially if you talk about key moments in your life when your relationship with Christ became even deeper and richer. In this case you sharing not so much your conversion story as your discipleship story. Some of us can also tell stories about how we came to faith as children, lost our faith as adults, and then regained it later in life. I’m in that number, and I’ve told my own story numerous times to people struggling with doubt.
As long as I’ve been sharing my faith, and with seven years of theological education under my belt, I want you to know I still get nervous doing it! You can share your faith stories as sensitively and carefully as you can and still not know how things will turn out. But I try never to forget two things—the gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful, and the great communicator, Jesus Christ, is working through me as I speak.
When it comes down to it, the best place to learn how to reach people for Jesus is from Jesus himself. The famous story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman depicted in John 4 is an excellent case in point.
This is another of those stories most of us know well. Jesus is traveling with his disciples through Samaria. This is an odd route for Jesus and company to take because everyone knows the Jews and Samaritans get along like the Hatfields and McCoys. Jesus sits his weary bones down by Jacob’s well while his disciples head into a nearby town for food.
It’s high noon on a blistering hot day, and Jesus is very thirsty. He spots a Samaritan woman with a water jar, and asks her for a drink. What follows is one of the most fascinating conversations in the Bible, and a wonderful template for how we can approach people on behalf of Jesus.
Notice that Jesus is willing to cross all kinds of gaps as he speaks to this woman. First is the ethnic gap. Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water–normally they never mixed. Neither did respectable men and women who were not married. In that day a man would never speak openly to any woman but his wife lest people get the wrong idea.
To make matters worse, this woman seems anything but respectable. We learn later that she’s been married five times and is currently living with another man. Jesus is the one and only sinless man ever to live, and yet he’s more than willing to engage a woman of questionable heritage and character.
Over and over Bill Hybels points out that Jesus was radically inclusive where people are concerned. How can we be any different?
Notice, too, that Jesus begins with a question. And notice the question he asks is not—“If you died today, do you know where would you spend eternity?” No, Jesus’ first question seems very mundane: Will you give me a drink? But the question is interesting because it has the possibility of leading to a deeper discussion of living water that quenches our thirst forever. And that’s what we’re looking for—opportunities to pose questions like, “Do you think it’s possible for anyone to really know God?”
By the way, did it ever occur to you that most people far from God are spiritually thirsty and don’t know it? In his book, Silence on Fire, William Shannon writes that all human beings are born with an intuitive awareness that they are creatures of God, and an in-bred thirst to know their Creator. As we seek to tell others about God, we know that God-planted thirst is working in our favor.
Notice that Jesus is infinitely patient, gracious, and respectful as he interacts with this woman. Eventually, the woman realizes she’s talking to the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, and she bolts away so quickly in her excitement to tell others that she leaves behind her water jar, an unheard of faux pas in the hot desert of ancient Palestine.
If you keep reading John 4, you learn this Samaritan woman goes into town and tells everybody she meets about her encounter with Jesus. She’s never had the benefit of Sunday School, never read a book about evangelism, never taken a course in seminary. All she’s done is have a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And her only strategy is to point people to Jesus. Consequently many people in her community came to know Christ.
It doesn’t take theological training or moral sainthood to reach others for Christ. A passion for Jesus, and a love for his people are all that’s required.
So, what’s holding you back?