Friday, October 23, 2015

Rethinking Evangelism: “But Sharing the Gospel is Tough!”

Staying in shape is tough but more Americans are exercising more frequently than ever.[1] My wife and I try to make it to the gym at least four times a week. Maybe because we're now "middle age" and see the urgent need to stay fit as we enter our more "mature" years. The greatest obstacle to staying fit is not taking the time to exercise regularly. But the investment is worth it. 

During a break at the gym the other day, I was chatting with a friend. I was sharing about the need to reach the nations with the Gospel, another passion of mine. It is, after all, the mandate of Jesus that the Good News of his Kingdom be proclaimed to all peoples everywhere (Matthew 24:14).

I was explaining that the nations are now among us, increasingly so. The data indicates that there are now 85 Masjids, Muslim places of prayer, in the DFW Metroplex, my home turf. This religious demographic has grown greatly over the past three decades. I doubt you could find a few mosques in North Texas 30 years ago. We also have a growing population of Hindus in my city and hundreds of thousands of immigrants representing hundreds of "Unreached People Groups."

I was also sharing about the Jesus Film, how the initial capital for this great evangelism tool, first came from the Dallas area, and the impact that this movie has had globally, about the number of languages the film has been translated into, but how the film has not been effective among most Americans. I was sharing with my friend the success that the ministry of Christ for All Peoples, with whom I now serve, is having with the use this tool in reaching our international neighbors. 

My friend commented, “but sharing the Gospel is tough.” He reasoned that pluralism and multiculturalism has made it tough. Really? I responded, “but how tough it is it to give away the greatest gift I have ever received?” 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an evangelism maven, one of 'those Christians' who shares a Gospel message at every opportunity, regardless of the circumstances, sometimes with the motive to "add another notch to the belt." I know some of those guys and while I admire their passion, I'm also concerned about their approach. I have done my fair share of "witnessing" over the years however, was an Evangelism Explosion Trainer, been on the streets in New York City and London sharing tracks and "proclaiming the Good News." But I'm not naturally an evangelist, just as I'm not naturally a super fit person. Who is? 

Maybe my friend has it right, “sharing the Gospel is tough.” But should it be? And if it is for us, why it so hard? In our pluralistic cultural, where every lifestyle choice is now acceptable, where every religious path is equal, where secularism reigns but your "entitled" to keep your faith “private,” maybe it is tough. We certainly don’t want to offend anyone, right? We’re only supposed to love our neighbor and if God wants them “saved” he will do the work, or so the prevailing narrative seems to informs us. We can just focus on doing good works, being compassionate people, and leave the rest up to God's timing. But is that what we see in the Biblical example?

Jesus came on an urgent mission and as he came he sends out those who would follow him. He came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He went from town to town preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. He called and equipped disciples (Luke 9:1), he taught throughout Galilee, healed the sick, fed the hungry (Matthew 4:23), and accomplished so much more than could be recorded (John 21:25). He knew his task, why he had come, and saw his work through to completion (John 17:4). And, most importantly, he told us he had set the example for his people to follow...

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
(John 13:15)

Unlike the record number who are exercising, the problem we have today is that so few do actually follow Jesus example. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, makes the following observation:
“evangelism is on the decline among key demographics, especially among Busters and Boomers who make up nearly two out of three active Christians today…Christians need to be aware of a growing apathy toward evangelism among the most unlikely of groups: middle-age and middle-income Christians. These are the very people who are often reaching a place of religious maturity, which traditionally includes a commitment to faith-sharing conversations.” [2]
We should have a majority of mature active Christians today, since the "Busters and Boomers" compromise the largest segment of the American Christian population, but do we?

“Measure almost any group of churches today versus 30 years ago. You’ll likely find only one person is being reached with the Gospel for every 40 to 60 church members. You will find that conversions have declined precipitously. And where you find numerical growth, you are more likely to find the growth is transfer of Christians from one church to another….Few churches are truly sending out their members to evangelize those in their communities. The Great Commission has fast become the Great Omission.” reports, Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway. [3]

If Christian “maturity” was defined by typical American Christian practice – personal devotion and church attendance – we would be a very mature Church. But it’s not. Those disciplines are important but they are not maturity producing in and of themselves. 

Christian maturity is best defined by obedience to “all” Jesus commands, to actually following his example, by a "commitment to faith-sharing conversations.” That's the final command of Jesus to his disciples. Jesus doesn’t give us, “Busters and Boomers,” a smorgasbord for our own personal selection to reach maturity. He demonstrated how to live and calls those who would follow him to live as he did.  

What makes sharing the Gospel so tough? There are no doubt many personal answers to that question. But let me suggest there are three underlying reasons, that get expressed in many ways, for why we might find sharing the Gospel difficult:

1. A lack of confidence in ourselves. If we truly knew who we are in Christ and believe we possess the greatest and most important message in the history of mankind we would have the assurance to live with the loving and meek boldness (the two actually do co-exist) required of our faith and Jesus’ example. Confidence in who we are as representatives of who Christ is gets expressed in our lives by what we make our priority. According to Kinnamen and Rainer's respective research we apparently have other priorities.

2. A lack of confidence in the Gospel. If we truly appreciated the exceedingly great worth of the free gift of life we have received in Christ’s finished work we would have the confidence to give that gift away to others, regardless of what our culture says. Confidence of the Gospel’s power to transform hearts and lives gets expressed by giving it away, not hoarding it for ourselves and our church. We'll deal with our understanding of the Gospel in another post. 

3.  A lack of confidence in Christ. If we truly grasped the incalculable value of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection we would have the confidence to live as we are called. Confidence in who Jesus is for us must be expressed in how we live our lives, IN HIM, not just in where we plan to spend eternity.

Sharing the Gospel is not meant to be tough, even under the most difficult of circumstances__ in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 21:12-15). In our own strength, sharing the Gospel is actually not possible (John 15:4), which may be why it is so often left undone. But when we know who we are, value properly the message we carry, and understand all Jesus has accomplished, sharing with a world in need becomes more than possible__ it becomes urgent!

Jesus. of course, had no difficulty in sharing about himself, his purpose for coming, so why should we, especially when we can have confidence in his great promise…”And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). 

Just as the greatest obstacle to staying fit is the lack of exercising, the greatest obstacle to sharing the Gospel is not exercising our faith, not to mention our freedom, to do so. But Jesus is worth it! 

How we might bring change to these "confidence" level will be the subject of future posts.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Oregon Shooting, Miss Clara and Prayer

Another horrific mass murder, this time on the campus of a small community college in Oregon, leaves us with the same political debate that other recent and similar incidents have. Arguments will be made for more gun control on the one side and tight controls on guns will be argued against on the other. The arguments will go on, the politician may bring some change to laws, but the underlying reason and response to such tragedy will go largely undiscussed and unaddressed. My heart goes out the families of the victims.

I don’t want to enter into the gun control debate. I see problems with the arguments on both sides. It seems to be a divide that cannot be crossed in a rational and reasonable way. But such madness, as leads to these debates, has no political solution as such evil cannot be addressed through policy change. 

Rather, I want to think about our response to such tragedy, in a still largely Christian nation. We have some information about how the victims responded to the threats posed to their lives. We do know that they were made to confess whether or not they were Christians. Those who said yes, were shot in the head. Those who said they weren’t were shot in the leg.The facts are still unfolding.

The possibility is more real today that some deranged individual with evil intent will walk into a public place and open fire. Friday night my wife and I went to the movies and standing outside were two armed police officers. That was not a scene we would have taken much notice of ten years ago in my hometown of McKinney. Times have changed and are changing quickly.

We must be prepared but how?

We went to see the latest Kendrick brother’s movie “War Room.” If you have not seen this outstanding and very well acted movie you really need to. It is that important. 

There is a scene in which Miss Clara, the protagonist of the movie who is a elderly prayer warrior, and Elizabeth, a young wife and mom struggling with her marriage and the Lord, are walking in a public parking garage. They are accosted by a knife wielding man and ordered to turn over their money. Elizabeth responds with fear and willingness to comply with the thief. Miss Clara stands firm and rebukes the thief in “Jesus’ name.” The thief flees. 

What is the different between Miss Clara and Elizabeth?

Elizabeth and her husband Tony are Christians. They are pursuing the American Dream. They are portrayed as occasional church-attenders. They pray and give thanks before their meals. They do have serious marital issues and Tony is caught in an unethical business dealing as well as thinking about adultery.  Unfortunately, they are all too representative of the cultural Christianity that permeates much of American life. 

Miss Clara, on the other head, is a senior saint and widow who has discovered the power of the “War Room.” She understands deeply the power of prayer to overcome the flesh, the world and the evil one. Miss Clara understands the enemy is not the other person, not even the knife-wielding thief, but a real thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). She is confident that through intercessory prayer Elizabeth can regain peace in her life, as well as her marriage. The power of her prayer life allows her to stand boldly before her would be assailant. She is prayed up! 

A pastor friend of mine recently asked on Facebook, “The gunman in Oregon told all Christians to stand and then he shot them. Would you have stood?” How would you answer that question? 

Many of the responders offered a bold “yes” which is certainly good, if also subject to some self-examination. Without being in such a life threatening situation we can only hope how we might respond, especially if we’re not prepared or trained. It’s easy to be bold on Facebook but Facebook is not the real world. My response: “I would depend on the Holy Spirit, prayerfully.” At least, I hope I would. 

In Nehemiah chapter 2, we find a different real world encounter. Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, went before Artaxerxes to ask to be sent back to Jerusalem to begin a rebuilding project. We read: 

“In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’”

“I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’”

“The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’”

“Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’” (Nehemiah 2:1-5, emphasis mine). 

A servant was not permitted to be sad in the presence of the king. It was no a small matter, as it could cost his life. Nehemiah’s faith was strong even if his countenance wasn’t but he was still afraid. When confronted by the king as to the nature of his request, Nehemiah first prayed (Nehemiah 2:4). Right there, before the king, Nehemiah prayed. But this wasn’t the first time Nehemiah had prayed. According to the first chapter of this account, Nehemiah had prayed for days (v 1:4). Nehemiah was prayed up! 

What does this have to do with the Oregon shooting and the answer to the question of how would you respond in the face of such a life-threatening encounter? 

The story of “War Room” and of Nehemiah inform us well of an important reality, especially in a culture where we turn first to our own strengths and abilities. Regardless of how we might profess our boldness, if we don’t know the power of a prayed up life, if we are not walking in the Spirit daily, and trusting his presence in our lives, we just may fail the test if that moment comes. 

The contrast between Miss Clara and Elizabeth is an important one today when we in the Church of America take intercessory prayer for granted and it is seldom practiced. Now more than ever we must stand boldly, in the full armor of God, and as Paul instructs: 

“pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6:18)

Thankfully, we also have the promise that our response doesn't depend on us when we depend on him (Matthew 10:19-20). 

Prayer for assurance: 
Lord, I do not want to fail you if that moment was to come but while I know that my spirit is willing the flesh is weak. Meet me in the “War Room” where I desire to find and trust in you alone. Fill me each day with your power and presence so that I might stand boldly in Christ. Amen.