Imagineering: Evangelizing the Lost

Romans 10:8-15

At the top of the resume that served as my introduction to the pastoral search committee here at Monte Vista, I listed what I called my “Summary Statement of Ministry.” This Summary Statement said this: “As a minister and pastor, my calling is to empower the Body of Christ to: Evangelize the lost, Disciple the evangelized, Equip the discipled, Send the equipped to evangelize the lost. As we work through this process of Imagineering church and discovering what it means to be the church here in our community, I want to take the next four weeks to examine these four circular ideas that flesh out what I believe we should be doing as we seek to live out of faith as a community of believers.

The circle begins with evangelizing the lost. In 1974, twenty-seven hundred representatives from over 150 countries and every branch of Christianity met in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the International Congress on World Evangelization. The Congress was convened by a committee headed by Billy Graham. Of the twenty-seven hundred attendees present at the Congress, twenty-three hundred signed the resulting document, the Lausanne Covenant, which is a 15-part statement that seeks to define what it means to be evangelical. One of the sections of the document defines evangelism this way:

To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world.[1]

The English word, “evangelism” is a transliteration of two similar Greek words, a noun, euangelion and its cognate verb, euangelizo. Euangelion is simply “good news.” The verb form is the action of telling, sharing, or proclaiming good news. So the good news might be, “It’s Christmas morning!” and the verb of sharing the good news is the kids waking up the parents and declaring to them, “It’s Christmas morning!”

Of course, as Christians, we have a particular understanding of what the Good News actually is. The Good News – the one with the capital T,G, and N – the Good News we proclaim is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the message of God creating, loving, and redeeming His people. It is the story that God’s people are not just one group, one nationality, or one set of genealogy. It is the good news that God’s people come from every tribe, people, nation, and language. It is the truth that God loved us enough to come out of heaven and be one of us, die as one of us, so to provide salvation for each of us who accepts it.

So what we say – the content of our message as a church – is this singular truth, in all of its competing complexity and simplicity. We have one message that we are to proclaim, and we are to proclaim it over and over. We are to proclaim it in its entirety, leaving nothing out. Sometimes we’re tempted to entice people to proclaim faith with the promise of pie in the sky and a mansion to call our own when we die, without mentioning the costs of faith – the change to the way we live, the challenge to surrender everything in pursuit of this message, this discipleship, this hope, this promise. As those signers of the Lausanne Covenant said, we are to proclaim the Good News with its call to take up our cross and follow our Savior.

This is our message: God loves us. God, though His Son, Jesus, died for us. God lives again and has gone to prepare a place for us. This truth and all of the little truths that accompany it. No one is excluded. There is tremendous cost, but there is even more tremendous benefit. This Gospel comes with the challenge to pay it forward to everyone, everywhere. So this is the content. It doesn’t change. It hasn’t changed in two thousand years, and it won’t change in the next ten thousand, either before or after Christ comes again. This is the truth of the Good News – the Gospel that we are to actively proclaim in the work of euangelion and euangelizo.

As evangelical Baptists, we are pretty good at knowing the content of the Gospel. We’re good at knowing what to say when we go to proclaim the Good News. But there’s more to proclaiming the Gospel than just knowing what to say. We also have to know how to say it.

This is perhaps the biggest area of debate about evangelism. During the great missions movements that coincided with the peak of European colonialism and world hegemony, the prevailing concept was to convert and civilize the heathen, not necessarily in that order. It was understood that someone who was a proper Christian believer should look and act like a European – after all, Europeans had been working at and perfecting Christian living for nearly two millennia.

Songs and hymns might be translated, but the tunes were always whatever was popular for hymns back home. Dress codes were expected to match western fashion. Worship practices always adhered to norms from home. Christianization also meant abandonment of culture, language, and uniqueness. So much for every tribe, nation, and language surrounding the throne. Instead, only one style and standard was deemed acceptable.

When Paul preached to the Athenians, he started his reasonings from their philosophers and their religious expressions. When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well, he began with her story and life situation. When he met a leper or someone with another illness, he started by meeting them where they were, addressing their need, and then moving their spirit. Jesus reached Zaccheus by going to his house.

As we think about how to communicate the good news, our most important consideration should be the context in which our target audience lives. The content will never change – there is only one message. But the way we communicate that content should be constantly adapting to the world around us – to the context we work in. The truth doesn’t change, the medium that presents the truth does.

The primary example of this is the language that we use to communicate the gospel. The gospel was first given to us in Greek. Yet, we don’t go around telling everyone,

grk

οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

And why not? Because we can’t make sense of it. None of us in this room speaks that language. Few if any of us could interpret it. Greek doesn’t communicate to us the same thing that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” does. Both of them say the same thing. It’s the same truth. But only one of them speaks to us in this room.

Likewise, you wouldn’t speak the truth using only your mouth to someone who is deaf. You would use written words or sign language. You wouldn’t show a film to someone who is blind. You would rely only on words or the power of touch. The loudest and clearest gospel message to someone who is hungry is to provide them food. For someone who is sick it is to provide medical care. For someone who is grieving, it is to provide comfort. The content of the Gospel is timeless and changeless. But the how of the gospel presentation should change and adapt to meet the hearer where they are.

And so the most important work of a missionary is learning the culture in which they seek to minister. Learning the language and the customs that the people use to relate to one another. Only when the missionary properly understands these things can she or he begin the work of speaking through those cultural cues the truth of the gospel. Using terms that they understand innately. Using metaphors that are common to their perception of the world. Then the Gospel will make sense. Then they will be able to hear and comprehend the truth.

Evangelism begins with what we say – the content. It is adapted – not change, adapted – by how we say it, according to the context in which we are speaking. The third element of evangelism that I want to talk about this morning is why we say it. Why evangelize?

The simple answer is also the most obvious: we’re commanded to. It was Jesus’ last instructions, which we talked about a few weeks ago. “Go into all the world and make disciples[2].” “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”[3] “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, then the end will come.”[4] If we are disciples, then we are also evangelists. Not that we all have the spiritual gift of evangelism, but that we are all called to see that the Gospel is proclaimed to every nation on earth. It must be done before the end will come. We are all of us and each of us accountable to this end. It is our Great Commission.

But more than our duty, I pray that evangelism would also be our passion. I was listening to a sermon recently by David Platt, pastor at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He was talking about our commitment to missions. He quoted a number of statistics, but a few of them have stuck with me. The average church goer contributes 2.5% of their income to a church. Of that amount, churches forward 2.5% to world missions. So for every $100 a typical American church going family makes, a nickel goes to world missions. 5 little cents. The typical American church going family spends more on French fries than we spend on world missions and evangelism.

Now, that is specifically world missions. That doesn’t include evangelistic efforts in the church and the church’s community, or efforts within the U.S. But even so, it’s a small figure. For being our singular assignment, making disciples by evangelizing the world with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you would think we could make sure that a staggering amount of our income goes to that end.

It is my desire that we be a church that is known for actively reaching out. For many long centuries, the church became accustomed to being the thing that people did on Sundays. It was a cultural expectation. If someone did not go, it was an aberration. Therefore, it was easy to get someone to go to church and let them hear the Gospel inside the building where a congregation met. That is no longer true today. Too many activities pull non-believers away from the church on a Sunday morning. The lure of sleeping in and reading the newspaper is too great. It is vital that the church reacquaint itself with the mission of going out, not bringing in. We must distance ourselves from the idea that the Gospel is only presented on Sunday morning and own the responsibility of it ourselves, each and every one of us.

And that’s what I want to see happen here. I want evangelism to be constantly on our hearts and minds, so that we are ever ready with the right content, as Paul told Timothy, the right content, packaged in the right way, so that our life’s purpose as servants of God will be carried out as the Gospel is proclaimed in Grit, Altavista and Hurt, Virginia, and the uttermost parts of the earth.

What might that look like? Well, it might look like having regular training with a variety of resources and techniques for evangelism, both during Sunday school or missions and outside of those times. There are many tools and options for reaching out to others. Everyone can find some method that will work within their knowledge, experience, and personality. I’d like to make sure that those tools are available and utilized.

I’d love to see regular teams spearheaded and led by members of our church that go out into the community – sitting at Main Street Deli, wandering the trade lot, exercising at the Y, walking at the park, and attending other community events, ready to engage the people around us with the message that is so near and dear to us.

Perhaps we could have a group that makes it a priority to make our presence known to every home in our community at least once a year, if nothing more than to say that we are praying for you. When I first arrived here and people asked me why I moved in, I would mention that I was the new pastor at Monte Vista Baptist Church. Invariably, people wanted to know where it was. I don’t want us to be just another church on the side of the road, lost in the blur of the many other churches in our area. I want people to say, “Oh, Monte Vista – you sure are committed to evangelism there!”

We need to seize opportune moments when lives are already in transition – weddings, funerals, birth of children, moving to a new home, and other major life transitions. The people of our church are well connected in our community so that we are fairly well informed of when things like these happen. We should never miss one of these opportunities to share God’s love and grace, and most importantly the hope of the Gospel, with our neighbors in their times of crisis and transition.

And, above all, I’d love to see evangelism become a filter for everything that we do here. Is this activity, program, or event helping or hurting our outreach? I am not saying that evangelism is the only thing our church does. There is much more than that to being a church body, and we will talk about more, though not all, of them in the coming weeks. But evangelism, regular, intentional evangelism, needs to be an integral part of what makes us here at Monte Vista a vital church body.

I would be so bold as to say that evangelism is the primary purpose of the church. Sharing the Good News is where making disciples has to start. We know the content, we can learn good methods, and we can – and we must – fulfill our call to do so. Monte Vista Baptist Church must become a church that evangelizes. The church in Acts saw God add to their number daily those who were being saved.[5] God’s line of work hasn’t changed. He’s still in the business of redeeming people to himself. We just need to do the work.

Let’s pray.


[1] http://www.lausanne.org/covenant. Accessed on October 14, 2010.

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] Acts 1:8

[4] Matthew 24:14

[5] Acts 2:47

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