Saturday, January 8, 2011

Whatever Happened to Evangelism?

I was brought to a saving knowledge of Christ in the fall of 1979. The man most responsible for that conversion was my uncle, Bob Knuckles. We called him Bobbie. Bobbie married my aunt Lois in Cleveland, Ohio. Bobbie and Lois were like many other young couples in the 70s. They liked to party and have a good time. But during the middle of the partying, the booze, and the drugs, God transformed both my uncle Bobbie and aunt Lois through the power of the gospel. Lois was my dad's younger sister. We lived in a small town in in the coal fields in Logan County, West Virginia. Life was simple in those days. The town we lived in couldn't have had more than 200 people living in it. The most exciting thing to do then was to get together with a handful of friends and play football in Jill Atkins's front yard. Jill had a huge front yard. Afterwards, we would all walk down to Amie and Cletus' carry out and by a Royal Cola soda and sit on the steps of the post office bragging about the plays we had just made. I was athletic, participating in all three sports as kid. My favorite was football. As I grew into my teens and life started taking some direction for me, little did I know that everything was about to change. My uncle Bobbie would visit frequently. We lived beside my grandfather and when his children came in to see him, we were right there to enjoy the company as well. It was always a treat to see my uncles and aunts. There wasn't much going on in that small town in the middle of nowhere, WV. So when family came down for a visit, it was exciting. Bobbie, being a new convert to Christ, began to share the gospel with the entire family. We never attended church. I had only been inside a church twice by the time I was 14. One by one, family members begin confessing their sins to God and conversions started taking place. I kept hearing about the end of time, the judgment of God, and how God would hold me accountable for my sin. At first I balked at the message as any unregenerate 14 might do. But the message of Christ started to bother me. I became inquisitive. I started asking questions instead of avoiding the conversations. And then on a Tuesday night, I decided it was time to make a change. I went to a prayer meeting at the Crawley Creek Church of God for the sole purpose of going to the alter to "get saved." This is what I thought one had to do. Little did I realize at that time that God has already opened my eyes and regenerated my heart. I was simply doing what comes natural for a newly born again person: I was making it know to all that I believe Jesus is the Christ and profess Him as my Redeemer and Savior. It wasn't long after that that I got my first Bible: a Thompson Chain Reference. Wow! I loved that Bible. And it wasn't terribly long after that that I began sharing my faith and witnessing to friends about the life-changing power of the gospel of Christ. We would go into the town of Logan and hand out tracks. On one occasion I even went to Cleveland, OH. and passed out tracks and witnessed to the gospel there. It is 31 years later now and I still share the gospel with unbelievers as often as I can. But I have noticed that this practice has fallen on hard times since those early years in Logan, WV. I think there are several possible contributors to this phenomenon and I will mention a few ever so briefly.

Everyone loves Jesus
I was looking at a statistic the other day that claims that nearly 80% of people who live in the United States are Christian. Now if you live in a different culture, hang onto to your hat. I will get to some like reasons for why people don't share the gospel in your society. However, I am not convinced that it is as big a problem as it is in American society. As soon as you ask someone if they are a follower of Christ, if they believe in Jesus, they answer yes. But this also begs the question, kinda. Many people don't even get this far.

People have little confidence in their ability to articulate the gospel
Some people are new in the faith and are uncertain of how to talk to someone about Christ. Fair enough. My response would be talk to them about Christ in relation to you and how your life has been impacted by the gospel. Once you have begun to really dig into the Word of God and have a better understanding of the gospel itself, and how to present it, then you can change the conversations a little. But don't feel like you have to be a theologian to share Christ with friends.

The effects of pluralistic philosophies
We have spent years thinking that the worse thing we could possibly do is be closed or narrow minded on a subject. We have been conditioned to think that we should tolerate competing beliefs and worldviews. Hence it follows that presenting a gospel that leads people to eternal life if they accept it or eternal damnation if they don't is about as unpopular as the Queen making a toast down at the local Irish pub. The last thing we want to do is be perceived as a narrow-minded bigot. We have been bullied in our culture not to cut against the grain. The fear of man has great sway over us in this country. And worse, many Christians do not think Christianity is the only right religion. They believe there are numerous other paths that also lead to God. This makes witnessing irrelevant.

The practice of confrontation
Face it. One of the most difficult things to do is confront someone. We hate this. In a society where tolerance is the highest ethical practice and pluralism the most esteemed philosophical outlook, approaching the subject of the exclusive claims of Christ is not such an easy task. We do not want to offend folks and there is a very real threat that offense could result from talking to someone about how they live their life and where they will spend eternity. This fear of confrontation serves as a huge impediment to evangelism in our culture.

Radical individualism
Americans place the highest value on individualism. People's religious views are personal. How they live their life is personal. Their relationship with God and where they attend church are private matters. And not only that, given the prevalence of pluralism, this information is really quite sensitive not to mention, none of our business. We are taught we must respect people's basic right to privacy and confronting people with a gospel that is invasive and exclusive is offensive to people on so many levels.

Fear of man
Sometimes we don't share the gospel because we are afraid of what might happen. It may be a relationship we have with someone who is unsaved that we don't want to jeopardize. We may fear that they will end the relationship if we even attempt to approach the subject. Others may fear that they will lose their job if they are outspoken regarding their faith. There are real situations where some Christians may be jailed for sharing their faith. And in some instances, one could lose their life for sharing the gospel.

What are we to do? We could do what many in the Christian church have done in Western culture. We could change the gospel. We could drop the concept of exclusivity from the claims of Christ. Some have done that and managed to grow their churches, win friends, and influence people (maybe). We could make the gospel into a success philosophy rather than the life changing power that it is. We could take the Joel Olsteen approach of telling people the gospel is really about living your best life now. If you really want to be a successful business woman, mother, father, teacher or just fill in the blank, then Christianity is the key. Or we could do what Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Disciples did. Jesus' first sermon was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." [Matt. 4:17] John the Baptist's sermon never changed, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. [Matt. 3:2] Peter's first sermon was, "Repent and be baptized, everyone of you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." [Acts 2:38] Jesus was loving and caring in how he handled everyone. But loving and caring took on different methods from time to time. For the woman taken in adultery, Jesus was soft and tender as he told her that he did not condemn her. But he also said "go and sin not more." In other words, no more adultery. In our society, even telling folks to cease from practicing an ungodly lifestyle is out of vogue. But then again, the world has never liked being told what to do. Remember what John the Baptist said to Herod regarding his brother, Phillips wife? It got John his head handed to him quite literally. Did that possibility keep the prophet from thundering God's word. In John's day, a prophet was feared and respected to a degree. Oddly enough this did not stop people from killing them. Even Herod had some trepidation about taking John's life, but he did so anyway. His sin was more important to him than God's prophet. But in our day, we have even transformed Christ into a modern projection of our culture. We think that Jesus was a soft spoken man who was SO sensitive to our sins that he would never rebuke someone or threaten someone with their unbelief. But is this an accurate representation of the historical record we find in the gospels?  In Matt. 7:5 Jesus says, You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye." By our standards, that doesn't sound very nice. Jesus says in Matt. 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Wow. That sounds a bit narrow and harsh as well. Jesus says, "Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." [Matt. 10:28] That sounds like a threat to me. Again Jesus said, "Don't think I am come to bring peace on the earth, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." [10:34] Is this really the same Jesus that we hear about in some of the sermons and discussion about Jesus today? In Matt. 12:34 Jesus said, "You brood of vipers, how can you being evil, speak what is good." Woe! That is over the top. Jesus was not the soft-spoken gentle type we might imagine in many of our modern cultures today. Jesus was very different from our modern projections of Him. The gospel works to convert men to Christ because God is the one who is sovereign over salvation. God calls and elects those He has chosen for salvation from the foundation of the world. [2 Thess. 2:13] He has chosen the foolishness of preaching to do so. It takes the power of God to open the eyes of blind, unregenerate sinners. [1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 8:7-8]

Don't be afraid to share the gospel of Christ in any culture. There is nothing greater than to be persecuted for the cause of Christ. Do you love man more than God? Do you fear man more than God? If you do, I would say to you that you should repent of such devotion to man and submit to God. The kingdom of heaven is at stake.  I leave you with the words of Peter as he wrote to a community of believers that were in serious peril, on the brink of real persecution: "Do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." [1 Peter 3:14-15]

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