>I apologize for getting this out later in the week than usual.  It has been a busy couple of days, and the next couple of days look pretty full as well.  The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, February 8, 2009.  The text for this week’s message is 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.

Have you ever stopped to think about what evangelism is?  It seems like such a vague term sometimes, and usually I can say the word “evangelism” and there are just as many images in our minds as there are people sitting here this morning.  But I’m almost willing to bet that there is a common thread in nearly everyone’s thoughts when it comes to evangelism.  It’s scary; it’s awkward; and it’s best left to the “professionals.”  However, this doesn’t have to be the case.  Evangelism doesn’t have to be scary, awkward or somebody else’s responsibility.

In this section of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he begins by talking about why he shares the gospel.  He doesn’t do it for the attention that it brings him.  He doesn’t do it to draw attention to himself.  He does it out of necessity.  This reminds me of the story of Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 20, Jeremiah seems like he is upset with God.  He is actually complaining about the things that happen to him because of his call.  Now, you have to understand.  Jeremiah went through a lot of stuff in his day.  He was called at a young age; he was not allowed to marry; people plotted to take his life; he was whipped and locked up; nearly killed by a mob; left to die in a pit of mud.  He certainly had reason to complain about his calling.  Yet, through it all, he was able to praise God.  Even though there were times when he faced great abuse for being God’s messenger, he continued to praise God, and he couldn’t help but share the messages that God had given him.

In the midst of his complaint in chapter 20, Jeremiah says, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”  The message of God was shared by Jeremiah out of necessity; he couldn’t hold it in.  Likewise, look at Paul in Acts 17. 
Paul is another person who certainly had every reason to complain about his calling.  If you want to see his list of “accomplishments,” check out 2 Corinthians 11.  Paul was beaten with a whip, stoned, beaten with rods, shipwrecked, and so much more.  Paul certainly suffered for sharing the gospel.  In Acts 17, he is waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him in Athens, he couldn’t help but preach the gospel there as well.  That’s the thing about the gospel.  It is such a powerful message – a message of hope, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption – that he couldn’t help but share it with others, even though he had not intended on doing it at first.  There is a certain amount of necessity in sharing the gospel that the Christian Church especially in America has lost.  People don’t know how to share the gospel, because they either haven’t taken the time to learn or their leaders have not taken the time to teach them.  There are so many misconceptions about what it means to share the gospel in the first place, that many don’t know how to start.

At my retreat a couple weeks ago, we did this goofy exercise where we read some old books on Methodism and put together a 3 minute skit presenting some material from our book.  I don’t remember what our book was about, but there was a section on evangelism.  So, we decided to do a skit talking about different ways of doing evangelism.  The skit took place as a meeting for all those who are interested in evangelism at a particular church.  There were only three people in the group.  One played the part of the pastor, while two of us played interested members of the congregation. 
For my part in the skit, I was supposed to be somebody who thought evangelism meant standing on the street corner, condemning people and telling them that they were going to hell unless they changed their ways.  Sadly, this form of “evangelism” – if we can even call it that – is something that I have witnessed before.  I had some fun with it, after all, how often do I get to stand in front of a bunch of pastors and yell at them about how they were going to hell?  It was so over the top, that everyone in the room knew I was kidding and laughed at the idea that this was considered evangelism.  But there are some people who do this that aren’t joking around with their colleagues.

Paul also talks about how he is entrusted with a stewardship.  He has been entrusted with the responsibility to share what he has received.  And what did Paul receive?  New life.  Remember, Paul wasn’t always the super evangelist that we read about in the later chapters of the book of Acts.  Paul once persecuted the church.  Paul was on his way to arrest Christians in Damascus, when he had a profound encounter with Jesus Christ on the road.  That encounter forever changed his life, and he recognized his calling to be the one that would share this message with all peoples.  Paul was to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  This was an incredible turn around from who he was before; that’s the power of the gospel.  The gospel can turn us around from who we were to who we are supposed to be.  And then it is our responsibility to share that with others.  That is an awesome responsibility, and we have to be good stewards of what we have been given and share the gospel with those around us.  But it still comes back to the fact that we don’t know what to do, and that is scary.  We still think of evangelism as something that is best left to the “professionals.”  And notice, I am saying “we” because this is something that I struggle with as well.

If you go to Google and type in “evangelism techniques” you find literally thousands of websites devoted to different ways of doing evangelism.  You can go to a Christian bookstore and find all sorts of books on the topic as well.  There are a ton of different studies that are available on the topic as well.  In fact, there is so much stuff out there on “proven” evangelism techniques that most people don’t even know where to start so they just give up from the very beginning.  I have sat through a couple of evangelism classes like this and have been both impressed and disappointed at the quality of different materials that are available.  The one I was impressed with the most was called, “Go Fish,” and it came out of Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, GA.  Down the road, this might be a short term study that we offer through the church; I think it would totally be worth our time, but for right now, we’ll tuck it away in our memory banks.

But in the first session of this series, the pastor, Andy Stanley (the son of well-known preacher Charles Stanley) talks about how it is easier for the people in the congregation to share the gospel because he is a pastor.  Most people would think that it would be other way around; that it would be easier for the pastor to do evangelism because he/she is a pastor, but the truth is, and this is from my own experience, once people know that I’m a pastor, it’s like they put on this fake “holy mask.”

When I worked at Sears during college and seminary, I wouldn’t tell people that I was studying to go into ministry because when I did, they changed their behavior when they were around me.  Once people found out that I was going to be a pastor, they would watch what they did and said around me.  Often the casual curse word would be followed by an apology in my direction.  And it was an apology that wouldn’t have come if they didn’t know that I was going into ministry in the first place.  It is difficult to be real and honest with people when they put on this mask.

Stanley mentions another reason why it is easier for people who aren’t pastors to do evangelism.  People expect the pastor to talk about God, and so most of them will simply humor the pastor, but not actually listen to what it is that he/she has to say.  It like they have a switch that just gets turned off once they know that the person they are talking to is a pastor.  Nothing really gets in, and it turns into a wasted conversation full of empty promises about wanting to find a church to go to and wanting to turn their lives around without any real intent to do so.  And there’s a point in the conversation, where you can almost see that switch get turned off.  It is the switch that controls whether or not we are honest and up front with people.  It’s the same look that Katie gets on her face when I start talking about baseball, or the look that I get on my face when she starts talking about clothes.  It’s the “Yeah, I hear you, but I stopped listening a long time ago” look.  I’m sure that many of you know what I’m talking about.

Now, I’m not saying all of this to excuse myself from doing evangelism.  Don’t get me wrong here.  What I am saying is that, believe it or not, you are in a better position to share the gospel on a daily basis than I am.  I’m willing to bet that most of you know a handful of people who you talk to frequently that don’t go to church anywhere and may not be all that interested in going to church in the first place.  You work alongside them; you see them at the high school for sporting events or concerts; you live right next door to them.  These are people with whom you have already built some sort of relationship.  Just as Jesus was doing before he called the disciples, you live in community with these people who don’t know Jesus.

I don’t know how many of you have heard of Penn Jillette.  He is a comedian/magician who has a show out in Las Vegas.  He’s fairly well known as an atheist.  He is very open about it and doesn’t pull any punches.  He has flat out said that he “knows” there is no God.  A while back, there was a video on YouTube that was getting passed around, and you may have even seen it.  He is talking about how a guy came up to him after the show one night and gave him one of those Gideon New Testament.  He wasn’t trying to convert Penn right then and there, he simply gave him the Bible and some contact information.  Sometimes that all it takes.  Now, Penn didn’t have a major, life-changing experience, but he certainly had a lot of respect for this person, and this is a way that we can share the gospel with others.

Another way of sharing the gospel is simply by living it out and not being afraid to talk about spiritual things with people that you know.  In Matthew, Jesus talks about how we are the light of the world.  We have to be willing to let our light shine before all people and give praise to God.  We have to live our lives in such a way that God is glorified, and when we do this, people can’t help but notice and they will ask us why we live like this.  And that’s when, as Peter says, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

 Paul talks about this as well.  He says that he became a servant of all so that some may be won to Christ.  He lived his life in such a way that people noticed that there was something different about him, and he did not shy away from sharing the gospel with them.  He came to understand who they were and shared the gospel in such a way that it made sense to them.  This is what we do when we live in community with people.  We get to know who they are.  We begin to understand things about them, but we don’t take that next step to openly share our faith with them.  We can talk to them about nearly anything else in our lives, but when it comes to faith, we don’t think we are qualified enough to talk to them about it.  Let me just tell you right now.  That is not true.  

You are qualified to talk to others about your faith.  Do you know the deepest theological minutiae?  No, but to be honest with you, it’s not really all that important.  Trust me.  I’m standing in front of you with a Masters degree in theology, but you can understand what I’m talking about – at least I hope you do.  If not, we definitely need to talk.  But the point is, you don’t have to know the solution to the problem of evil.  You don’t have to know the intricacies of the Arian debate in the 4th century.  You don’t have to know the order of the popes or the Roman Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  What you have to know is that through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has redeemed you from your sins; that because of Jesus, you live in relationship with the Almighty God, who created heaven and earth; and that this is too great a message to keep to yourself.

We don’t share the gospel because it is something we “have to do.”  It is a choice that we must make; it doesn’t happen on accident.  We share it because it is a message of healing for a hurting world.  It is a message of love for a world that doesn’t know what true love is all about.  It is a message of light for a dark world.  It is a message of hope for a world in despair.  And it is a message of redemption for a world that is in desperate need of it.  We talk to others about the gospel because it is a story that has the power to change everything we think we know about this world.