September 5, 1999 / Ephesians 4:17-24
My fear is that we have made evangelism into a Christian buzz-word that frightens most church members who hear it. From past experience, they expect to be scolded about their lack of concern for lost people when they hear someone use it. They brace themselves to be chided for not knocking doors, passing out tracts, or teaching home Bible studies. They get ready for the preacher or Sunday School teacher to send them on a guilt trip ó probably as background for launching a new church-wide program of community outreach.
Donít bristle and get defensive with me this morning, for I have no such agenda for this sermon. Whereas I certainly do believe that evangelism is one of the things that makes believers strong, I donít believe in the definitions and methods typically associated with it in churches. Evangelism is not ó as one fellow characterized it ó a "mugging mission into enemy territory." Neither is it a matter of identifying "prospects" and targeting them with manipulative sales techniques.
Some of the most effective evangelists Iíve ever known had no idea they were evangelizing anyone. They were simply going about the business of living their faith in Jesus Christ with such integrity that it caused someone to question their negative, pejorative image of Christians and churches, to begin a personal quest for authentic meaning for his or her life, and eventually to discover that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Involvement With the Story
To tell you what I understand evangelism to be and to challenge you to take your role as a witness to Jesus Christ seriously, let me offer you a way to think of evangelism as a process of engaging people with the story of Jesus Christ. It is hearing the story and telling it, imitating it and making it our own. Two anecdotes will help me make my point.
Myra was entertaining our three-year-old granddaughter recently by thumbing through a big table book of Norman Rockwell prints. They came to the familiar one set in a doctorís office that has a little boy standing on a chair, looking over his shoulder at the doctor, and about to get a shot.
Shelly stared at the picture and told Myra not to turn the page. "You look at the other page, Honey," she told her. And she stared. With the page eventually turned, she said, "Honey, I want to go back to that boyís picture." She did ó no less than three times. She finally leaned over the page, patted the picture with both hands, and said, "I just wish we could get in there to see whatís going to happen next."
At the start of the movie The Neverending Story, a boy named Bastian is running away from some other kids. He ducks into a bookstore to hide and is challenged by the owner. The old man says something to the effect that the boy doesnít belong in his store because he isnít a reader. Protesting that he does indeed read books, a conversation follows about books that tell "safe" stories ó stories you read as fiction or for their historical information, put down, and walk away from ó and a "special" book that is altogether different from the rest.
"Whatís that book about?" asks Bastian.
"Oh, this is something special," says the bookstore owner.
"Well, what is it?"
"Look, your books are safe," the owner says. "By reading them you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe."
"But thatís what I like about them," replies Bastian.
"Ah, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again."
"What do you mean?" asks Bastian.
"Listen," says the man. "Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?"
"Yes," says Bastian.
"Werenít you afraid you couldnít escape?"
"But itís only a story!"
"Thatís what Iím talking about," says the man. "The ones you read are safe."
"And this one isnít?"
The Bible isnít safe! It isnít one of those books to be read merely for the stories of Noahís Ark, Josephís Coat, and Jesusí kindness to children. It is the narrative account of Godís purpose to redeem sinful-but-dearly-loved humanity through his grace revealed in Jesus Christ. And people who overhear or see a visual image of that story are inclined to want to "get into that picture" and follow through with their own involvement in that unique story.
Let me say it another way: Your story is my story is the story of every human life, and our personal and collective stories make sense only in relation to HIS story as narrated for us by Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a series of doctrinal affirmations over which to battle. It is the unfolding story in human history of Godís purpose for the creatures he made in his own image and likeness.
Why Our Neighbors Arenít Caught Up in the Story
If evangelism is drawing people into the story of Jesus ó challenging people to see themselves and all the events and relationships of their lives in light of a personal relationship with Jesus as their way, truth, and life ó how do we share his story with them? How do we invite them to channel the streams and tributaries of their human experience into the ocean vastness of Godís love for them in Christ? How do we call them to find meaning, identity, and purpose in him?
Tragically, most people see their lives as self-contained events. That is, our educational system and social structures have combined to teach them a world-view that disconnects them from God and absolute moral values, accountability and eternity. With no one larger than self to define his or her world, the typical man or woman of our time has no more significant question to ask than "Whereís the party, dude?"
Looking back as far as the eighteenth century, a significant turn was made in western intellectual history. The Enlightenment is the name given to a movement whose chief goal was to replace God with nature, the Bible with human reason, religion with science. The Enlightenment world-view made the cosmos a closed system and confined talk about miracles to a superstitious, prescientific era. Humankind is not created in Godís image but is here as the result of chance workings in nature. The Bible is simply a collection of myths reflecting a particular precritical view of reality. Statements about God and morality are meaningless, truth is relative, and the scientific method is the sole arbiter of truth.
History has witnessed numerous cycles of shutting out God, pursuing a self-contained and self-willed agenda by human beings, and suffering the inevitable consequences. Paul described one of those cycles in an epistle he wrote in the seventh decade of the first Christian century.
And so I insist ó and God backs me up on this ó that there be no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd. Theyíve refused for so long to deal with God that theyíve lost touch not only with God but with reality itself. They canít think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion (Eph. 4:17-19, The Message; cf. Rom. 1:18ff).
And what is the Christian alternative to the world? What should be our strategy to evangelize people who have lost touch with God so that they arenít thinking straight anymore? How do we reach the people who have let themselves go in sexual obsession and addictions?
But thatís no life for you. Youíve learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything ó and I do mean everything ó connected with that old way of life has to go. Itís rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life ó a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you (Eph. 4:20-24, The Message).
People who have learned Christ model an alternative world-view for their neighbors. We have given up on the old way of life that is rotten through and through and started on a spiritual adventure leading to an entirely new way of life. It is life renewed from the inside (by the Holy Spirit) and showing itself more and more as a God-fashioned life.
Our neighbors wonít get caught up in the story of Jesus until they see us authentically caught up in it. The key to evangelism is not bumper stickers, T-shirts, and tracts. It is bona fide imitation of Jesus. When our churches are cultural alternatives to the worldís racism and sexism, jealousy and rivalry, selfishness and materialism, then and only then will we be light in a dark world. And it must be not just your church but you as that personís neighbor ó a person who keeps promises, lives with integrity, cares about others ó who demonstrates an alternative way of life. Then theyíll open up to you about their own emptiness and confusion. They will want to know more about your beliefs and life commitments. Theyíll be open to talking about Jesus with you, coming to church with you, reading a piece of literature that tells the basics of Christian faith, or joining your small-group Bible study.
Before you have the right to say anything about Jesus to anyone, you are called to be Jesus to her. Your Bible verses or invitation to church have no weight apart from your God-fashioned life. Your own life story must be one with the biblical narrative of Godís love enfleshed in Jesus. Something must be noticeably different or special about you before you can have credibility to talk about Jesus to that non-Christian man or woman.
You donít have to have everything figured out. You donít have to be perfect. You donít have to "have it all together." But you do have to have a clear direction, a definite purpose for your existence on Planet Earth. You must know who you are and why you are here. You must know that something has gone terribly wrong because of human sin. And you must know and believe that the solution to our problem is found only in Jesus.
Evangelism as a spiritual gift (cf. Eph. 4:11) is not given to every believer. Some of us are better at telling the story with words than others. But all of us are called to be witnesses to the power of the gospel story to redeem, transform, and give meaning to life. Without the credibility of our joint witness as a church or your personal integrity with the person in your workplace, there is little hope that the people who know us or deal with you will come to know Christ.
Can you understand now why I began by defining evangelism as "a process of engaging people with the story of Jesus Christ"? It isnít lobbing Bible texts at people or winning arguments with them. It is showing them such a lifelike picture of Jesus that they turn back to it again and again, touch it, want to know whatís going on there. It is welcoming those people into our midst and inviting them to be part of our spiritual journey. It is asking them to join us in linking our personal stories with Jesusí never-ending story of redemption.
From Genesis to the Gospels to Revelation, from fall to promise to Calvary to heaven ó it is the story unlike any other. You canít simply read it and put it aside. And it is not a safe story, for it will call for your personal participation in the drama. Our business as the church is to give people enough visual glimpses of the story to see that they are being called into the scene themselves.
We are Christians because we have become part of the story. And that story is grand enough that there is room for more. What a story! And what a joy that we have been called to tell it!
1Dialogue taken from the screenplay of The Neverending Story and quoted in J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 195.
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