I believe that God is calling First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga to be renewed in her commitment to tell the old, old story—and to tell it to people we are praying for in our lives. It is nothing new, of course. It just a growing burden in my own soul that the temperature for reaching the lost in our community ought to be high. I believe that God has placed all of the challenges of life in this coming year in our pathway in order to drive us to proclaim the Gospel. This is what happened in the early church. We read in Acts 8.1-4:
“And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8.1-4).
The troubles of persecution, by the religious terrorist, Saul of Tarsus—a sort of Ben Laden if you were a Christian family in those days—drove believers out of their home, Jerusalem, and out into the extremities of their world, into Judea and Samaria. The safer cocoon of Jerusalem was now a hostile place. The unbelieving Samaria, with its mix breed religions, would become home. They would even go without their own leaders, for the apostles remained back in Jerusalem.
This looked like trouble, big time trouble: terrorism, persecution and torture, refugees, no leadership. And what happened? The people “went everywhere preaching the Word.” What men meant for evil, God meant for good. The trials and troubles of that day created the greatest movement of Christianity into the world that, up to that time, the world had ever known.
And what does this say to us?
1. All times are good times to share the Gospel.
The New Year will no doubt bring in many new challenges to life. And some of them will be downright difficult. But in Christ’s timing, and in His sovereignty, all times are His times. And often times of difficulty present the greatest times for people to hear what God has done for you. They are open to finding healing, purpose or meaning for life in the midst of crisis. And Jesus Christ is the One who heals, comforts and welcomes broken people to bring their troubles to Him. “Cast your burdens on the Lord for He cares for you” says Peter.
2. All members of the Body of Christ are to be proclaiming the Word where they are.
Samaria didn’t look like Jerusalem. Samaria was worldlier. Samaria was confused about a lot of things regarding God. There were false gods. And Gentile paganism had eaten away at the older Biblical ways of life. Jacob’s well was there. Yet people, like the Samaritan woman in John 4, was, likely, a pure example of the confused state of that place. Ideas have consequences. And Samaria reflected the mixed up thinking that flowed from their mixed up religion. But this became the perfect place to share Jesus Christ. The Lord went there when others wanted to go another way (see John 4 again). And the early Church would have never chosen this as a place to be. But God chose it for them. And God has placed you where you are. It may not seem like a godly place. Maybe there is foul language there. Maybe the mixed up thinking of unbelievers is pervasive. Maybe it is even your own home. But you are there to be a light. You are there to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ right where you are. “Bloom where you are planted,” says the old adage. This is what the early Church did. And it is what we are called to do.
3. Be prepared to share the Gospel.
I personally feel responsible that every member in this church has an opportunity to learn how to present his or her faith in Christ. To that end, I want to explore with our incoming Minister of Outreach, Joel Trieck, how we can do that. I believe that Evangelism Explosion remains the single best way to equip people to share the Gospel. And I think it is a great way because it helps people to know the essential elements of the Gospel: Grace, Man, God, Christ, and Faith. It also provides on the job training. But let me say right here and now, that you possess, in your very life, the greatest power the world has ever known. If you do not know what else to say, you can say, “Here is what Jesus Christ means to me.” And then apply that testimony to the circumstance at hand. Think about what life was like without Christ (or how He helped you in tough times, if you were a covenant child who received Christ early and followed Him from childhood). Think about how you received Christ in your life. And then be able to say the difference that Jesus Christ has made in your life. Those three elements of a testimony will be used of God in powerful ways to reach others. You will become a “change agent” in the Kingdom of God! And you will fulfill the Great Commission in your own life.
4. Be in prayer about the place and the people God wants you to witness to.
I believe that in many cases the missing ingredient of personal evangelism has been prayer. Prayer for a person “humanizes” our evangelism. We focus our heart upon another person, see their need, and begin to experience their burden in our own soul. We come to love that person. Then we speak to them out of that love. This is precisely how our Lord approached people. Consider this one passage as a model for how you focus on people in your path:
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, [my emphasis] ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (Mark 10.21).
I believe that in that one passage lies the key to way we ought to approach human beings with the Gospel. Question: Whom are you praying for today? How about the lady at the checkout register at the place where you get groceries? How about the service writer at the place where you have your car maintained? How about your barber? How about the new salesman in your company, who was just transferred here? Look at them. Love them. And then speak to them. You will identify their need by this careful attention. You will also come to sympathize with their weakness. And you will speak, not out of spiritual pride or a sense of superiority, but out of grace and love. This is exactly how Jesus reached you.
5. Invite them to church.
Find a smaller place in the life of the church to enfold them, that they may be discipled. In our church Sunday School is such a place. And there are places like Men of the Covenant, which is an easy entrance place for a man who might not want the closeness of a small group (yet). There are Women’s small groups and support groups and service groups (like choir), which also make for “easy entrance” points into the life of discipleship here at our church. But by all means bring them into the public worship of Jesus Christ. Here, in corporate worship, where the Word is sung, the Word is prayed, the Word is preached, and the Word is presented in the Sacraments, the people of God are built up, and true seekers of God are brought in.
The great missiologist and Anglican bishop of South India, Leslie Newbigin, used to speak of the “…the congregation as the hermeneutic of the gospel…” (The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society). “Hermeneutic” may sound like a fancy theological word to some. “Hermeneutic” means “explanative” or “interpretive.” He was saying that a community of gathered believers living out the Gospel, telling the old, old story of Christ and His love to people they find in their everyday paths, and then inviting them into the life of discipleship which is shaping their lives for the better, remains the single greatest way that people come to understand the Gospel of Jesus. This makes sense. For God relates to us in flesh and blood, through His Son Jesus Christ. And this is how we relate His Gospel to others. And this is the way God builds His kingdom. And I when you hear me say that I pray for our church to be intentionally “missional,” this is what I am praying for.
Jesus has left a Great Commission for us to follow, not only around the world, but perhaps more difficult, right where we live. But He has given us the power to fulfill what He commands. And this leaves me with only one question to ask:
“Can I get a witness?”