A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 29, 2011.
John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
I can still remember the moment a group of us settled on a mission statement for our church. I can’t tell you the day or the year, but I’m thinking it was in the early 1990s. I believe our strategic planning group was working in the Gray Room, but I can’t be sure.
What I do remember is that our strategic planning consultant told us we needed a mission statement that would become the guiding “North Star” for our church as we moved into our future. The statement needed to be brief enough that our members could memorize it easily and recite it at a moment’s notice.
I’ve never worked so hard on one sentence in all my life! In those days I knew little or nothing about the process of spiritual discernment. Even so, I believe God was at work despite our dependence upon our own thinking and striving. And I believe with all my heart that the Holy Spirit helped us settle on our mission statement that has stood the test now of many years, and appears on most if not all of our publications, including today’s worship folder:
WE ARE A FAMILY OF FAITH SEEKING TO KNOW CHRIST AND MAKE HIM KNOWN.
We are a family of faith. We’re organized (most of the time!), but we’re not just an organization. We’re more like a family, committed to deepening the ties of love that bind us together. The primary focus of our community is not fun or even philanthropy—it’s faith. Which leads us to the second third of our mission statement: we are seeking to know Christ. This is where our emphasis on spiritual formation comes into play. We are not here to simply learn about Christ, as fascinating as that might be. We come together to help each other know Christ with a depth and intimacy that transforms our lives inside out.
But that’s not all. We also assemble to do everything in power to make Christ known to the community and world about us. This is the part of our mission statement that the New Testament would call “evangelism”. We gather to grow in our relationship with Christ so that in turn we might help others come to know Christ and grow in their relationship with him.
Now, as brilliant as our work group was in those days, we didn’t come up with these ideas on our own. Our direction was dictated in large measure by two New Testament passages that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, said should define his followers.
The first is the “Great Commandment,” spelled out in Mark 12—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…mind and… strength….(And) you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 29-31).
The second is the “Great Commission” expressed in Matthew 28—“Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father…Son and…Holy Spirit…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (19-20).
The mission statement of our church is based upon the mission statement of all Christians which in a nutshell is: “Love God with every fiber of your being. Love your neighbor with the same devotion you love yourself. And along the way, make disciples of everybody who populates your world, both at home and abroad.”
That’s all beautifully stated, isn’t it!? Thank goodness we all know what to do. Now we can sing our final chorus/hymn and get on with our day.
And that’s our problem in a nutshell. We know what to do but we don’t do it. In fact, we have somehow talked ourselves into believing that knowing what to do is enough. We pat ourselves on the back for memorizing the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, and for good measure, our church’s mission statement. Then, feeling good inside, we go on with our day and with our lives convinced we are faithful followers of Christ.
There’s just one small problem with this approach. Jesus highlights the problem in John 14 when he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Now, I’d like to think I love Jesus and Jesus loves me. But the inconvenient truth is that if I don’t actually obey the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, I don’t love Jesus, not really.
I wish Jesus had said, “If you love me, you’ll attend church.” Or, “If you love me, you’ll memorize scripture.” I’d be in great shape if those were the criteria. But they are not.
Here are the criteria for loving Jesus—that I will love God with every ounce of my energy; I will love my neighbor as well as I love myself; and I will arrange my life in such a way that I am becoming a disciple of Jesus who is in turn making other disciples of Jesus.
Now the problem with many, many churches is that they are simply not following through on these key points. They are living in disobedience to Jesus’ commands, but expecting God to prosper them anyway. And they cannot for the life of themselves figure out why their churches are not growing and flourishing.
Today I admit that our own congregation could be found guilty of not following through on our own mission statement. More importantly, we have struggled to remain obedient to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. And if I’m on target, we have no right as the church of Jesus Christ to expect to flourish until we consistently act in obedience to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, like many Christian churches with a more moderate theology, we have struggled mightily in the area of evangelism. We have scoffed at our how our more conservative friends have gone about it, and have consequently managed to do little or nothing in this department—and are proud of it! I have said for a long time that I was far clearer about what our church was not willing to do in evangelism than vice-versa.
Today, I want to say to you that we must be transformed, individually and corporately, in our attitude and approach to evangelism. If we love Jesus, we cannot and will not skirt around our mandate to show our love for others by introducing them in a winsome way to Jesus Christ, and then shepherding them in their the journey of spirit transformation.
Folks, evangelism is not optional in the church of Jesus Christ! It is, or should be at the core of who we are and what we do.
Fortunately for us, we have excellent role models in the New Testament for evangelism. On this sisth Sunday of Easter, we’re have lectionary passages that provide a vignette in the life of the Apostle Paul that speaks volumes about how to do healthy evangelism. And we have a sage word of advice from the Apostle Peter that helps us in the enterprise of telling others about the Jesus who was raised from the dead.
What can we learn from Peter & Paul? For starters, notice that both men reach others out of lives thoroughly transformed by Jesus. Peter says to his readers, “In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” The best evangelism is not the product of a guilty heart or skilled techniques. The best evangelism flows out of a transformed heart wherein Jesus has become Lord. You cannot make known what or who you do not know.
Secondly, share your faith act of love. In 1 Peter 3:8 Peter urges us to approach others with a tender heart and humble mind. That’s precisely what Paul does when he arrives in the city of Athens, Greece. In that day, Athens would be equivalent to our Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard University. We have visited our son, Tim, who lives in Cambridge, and I can tell you that humble minds are not easy to find in Harvard Square!According to Acts 17, Paul is neither intimidated by nor judgmental of the highly intellectual Athenians. Because Paul believed that the Lord his God was one and not many, he was deeply distressed by the many idols he saw about Athens. But instead of creaming the Athenians for their idolatry, he complemented them on being such religious people.
A third principle for evangelism is—be where the people are. Yes, when Paul traveled to a new community he would often make a beeline to the local Jewish synagogue as he did in Athens. But he didn’t stay there. Eventually, he mixed and mingled with people in the agora, or the marketplace of Athens. And before long he was dialoging with Athenian intellectuals in their Aeropagus, which would be much like our Harvard Square. Paul’s actions remind us that we cannot remain hemmed within these walls and reach people far from God at the same time.
Paul also reminds how important it is to begin where people are. Please notice that Paul did not walk up to the people of Athens cold and invite them to accept Jesus as their Savior or burn in hell. In fact, he did not even mention Jesus at first.
He pays attention to the surrounding culture, and very quickly works hard to establish common ground. He talks about the Athenian idol that is an altar “to an unknown god.” From there he slowly works his way toward talking about the God of the universe. But notice—Paul doesn’t quote any passages from the Old Testament because nobody in his Greek audience knows the Old Testament. Instead, Paul quotes Greek philosophers and poets to make his point that the God these Athenians so deeply desire to know is in fact known to Paul, and he would love nothing more than to tell them about the God who made them and sustains them day by day.
How does Paul pull this off? Because he has the gift of evangelism? Yes. Because he is a brilliant intellectual himself? Yes. But most importantly, because he has the same Holy Spirit inside him that Jesus promised to all his disciple who love and obey him. You may be thinking you can’t duplicate the skillful sharing of Paul, and you may be right. But do not forget that you have access to the same Holy Spirit as Paul, and with the Spirit’s help you too can play a vital role in our evangelistic enterprise.
Notice that at just the right moment, Paul shifts gears and begins to talk about the God not of idols, but of Jesus Christ. In other words, when the time was right, Paul was ready, in Peter’s words, to make his defense to anyone who demanded from him an accounting for the hope that was in him. For all his sensitivity in his in his initial approach to the Athenians, Paul does not water down the gospel when the time is right to share it. Paul knows that the moment he mentions that Jesus, his Lord, was raised from the grave, many in the Athenian ranks will react with scorn.
“Really? Raised from the grave?” We can hear the sophisticated Athenians say. “A resurrected Messiah. How quaint! Do you have any other fairy tales for us?”
Paul didn’t flinch. He boldly proclaimed the gospel, knowing that some would consider it utter foolishness. But notice that he did not react with scorn or bitterness toward his detractors. Instead, to paraphrase Peter, he treated them with gentleness and respect. And he made it clear that though they would be held accountable for their ultimate decision, they were free to say no to the God in whom they “lived and moved and had (their) being.”
Paul would have been thrilled of course, if everyone in his audience had become Christians on the spot. That didn’t happen. Reportedly only a few responded positively to the gospel that day. But Paul wasn’t discouraged, because he trusted God completely for the results. And so should we.
Now, I should tell you, FBC, that for several months now a group of 18 or so of our members has been attempting to discern a strategy for evangelism that fits our church. Just last Sunday leaders of that group presented their strategy to our deacons, and our deacons received it gratefully.
I am so excited because for the first time since we approved our mission statement many years ago we have a strategy to get it done. There are four parts to the strategy—individual and small group evangelism, attractional evangelism, missional evangelism; and prayer that will undergird all our evangelistic efforts. You will be hearing a lot more about this strategy in the days ahead.
For now, I would simply ask you to keep growing closer to this family of faith and deeper in your walk with Christ so that when the time comes you will be ready to say yes to God’s evangelistic call in your life. Imagine what would happen if 100% of our congregation—100%— actually became involved in some way with a healthy kind of evangelism?