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How to make evangelism slightly less difficult - Colossians 4:2-6

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 21st August 2005.

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What do you think is the big difference between the St Andrews Society of Hull, which in case you donít know is the Scottish society that meets in Hull, and the RNLI, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute? Just think about that for a moment. If you were to try and pin down what made these two organisations different what would you say? Now I guess you could talk about many different things but if I was put on the spot and asked to define one big difference between the two organisations this is what I would have to say: itís all about who they exist for. So, for example, consider the St Andrews society. Who do they exist for? People who miss the winds of Scotland, who grave the smell of haggis and who long to hear again the soothing notes of the bagpipes. Or to put it a different way, the St Andrews Society exists for its members. Itís a club! And so therefore if youíre not one of those homesick Scots who has joined the club then the society has nothing to offer you. Because like any club it exists for the benefit of its members and if youíre not a member it doesnít care who you are or what you do. But contrast this with the RNLI. Who does the Royal National Lifeboat Institute exist for? For its non-members. It exists for the outsider. And why? Because itís not a club, itís a rescue service.

And so is the church of Jesus Christ. This church exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members. Did you know that? We are not an exclusive club that simply caters for our personal interests. No, we are a rescue service that has been given a wonderful message of good news from God for the world. You see the world is perishing. Outsiders are perishing. The people in this village/this estate are perishing and the only message that can transform them and save them has been entrusted to us. To you and to me. And so God commands us to pass it on to the people who need to hear it. Now this is what the Bible means by evangelism.

Evangelism is speaking the good news about Jesus to non-Christians who are listening. Let me say that again. Evangelism is speaking the good news about Jesus to non-Christians who are listening.

So evangelism should not be confused with social action. Both are necessary for the Christian. Both are to overflow from our intimate personal relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. But evangelism and social action are not the same. One involves speaking whereas the other involves doing. Evangelism involves talking. It means to tell an outsider the good news about Jesus. And this is a responsibility that God gives to every Christian. Yes it is true that we may have different ways of putting it across and different opportunities to put it across but is it not your desire as a Christian, if that is what you are, to pass on the good news that you have found? Because good news is meant to be shared, isnít it? Now, in my experience, genuine Christians do have this desire to share the gospel with outsiders. The problem we have with evangelism is not a lack of desire but often a fear of inadequacy. What if I muck it up? What if I have nothing to say? What if people ask me a tough question that I donít know the answer to? How do I get started? How do I turn a conversation to the gospel when everyone around me is always speaking of trivial things? "Lee, you say, its not that I donít want to share the gospel with outsiders. I do. Itís just that I find it really difficult. So what help can you suggest?"

Three helpful hints to make evangelism slightly less difficult. Not to make it easy. I donít think it will ever feel easy to pass on the good news about Jesus to outsiders and so Iím encouraged by the words of the Australian evangelist John Chapman who says "Keep training yourselfÖThe first fifty years are the hardest." But although evangelism will never be easy I do believe it can be made slightly less difficult and so this morning I want to share with you three helpful hints from Colossians 4:2-6 that will help us become better at sharing our faith.

  1. Be devoted to prayer (Verses 2-4)
  2. Be dedicated to action (Verse 5)
  3. Be deliberate in conversation (Verse 6)

First of all, be devoted to prayer. Paul says in verse 2 "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful." And isnít this brilliant! Our evangelism does not start by speaking to people about God but it starts when we speak to God about people. Paul says devote yourselves to prayer and what he means is simply: make sure you are repeatedly talking to your heavenly Father. And I stress the word repeatedly because the word Paul uses for devoted means to persist in prayer, to be in it for the long term, to stay the course. To run the marathon not the sprint.

We are to be like the persistent widow in Jesusí parable in Luke 18 who kept on coming to the unjust judge to ask him for justice against the person who had committed an offence against her. And do you remember how the parable continues? For some time he refused but finally he said to himself "Even though I donít fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she wonít eventually wear me out with her coming!" And what does Jesus say? Listen to what the unjust judge says. And then think about your heavenly Father who stands in complete contrast to this wicked individual. Because your heavenly Father is just and merciful and loving so, Jesus says, how much more will he answer the prayers of his persistent children.

Paul says devote yourselves to prayer. And then because he knows that it is difficult to keep on praying repeatedly over the years, in his pastoral wisdom, he provides us with two motivations that should keep us on our knees. He says in verse 2 "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful."

First of all, be watchful. Keep our eyes open. What can you pray for? Who can you pray for? Keep your eyes open. Paul says be watchful. And maybe you want to get hold of a little book or something else that will help you to remember what you see. But if we are to keep on praying for the long haul then we must keep our eyes open for people, for places and particular events that we can lift up to heaven and talk to our heavenly Father about. So as we devote ourselves to prayer letís, first of all, be watchful. But, secondly, letís also be thankful. Because thankfulness is a great motivation to keep on praying. And so let me ask you: how thankful are you for what God has done for you? How thankful are you for the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in your place on the cross?

You may remember the moving story about an American who, on the night of an awful Ferry disaster, risked his life time and again to fish 17 people out of the freezing water. When he was later asked about the episode and what stood out in his memory of that terrible night he replied, sadly "Yes, one thing does stands out - not one of the 17 has ever written to thank me for saving their lives."

Are we thankful that God has saved us from eternal punishment by sending his Son to die for us? Do we say thank you? Thankfulness is a great motivation to keep on praying. And not just thankfulness for the achievements of God in the past but also thankfulness for the achievements of God in the present. We are to thank God not just for the cross but also for the answers to prayer that we see all around us.

So let me ask you sensitively: is this an aspect of your life that needs to be reignited? Has the pilot light gone out? Have the prayers stopped? Has God stopped hearing from you? If we want to make evangelism slightly less difficult then we must begin not by speaking to people about God but by speaking to God about people.

So what should we say? When we approach the throne of heaven what should we ask for? Paul tells us in verses 3 and 4. He says "pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should."

Now at this point in Paulís life he has been put under arrest for passing on the good news about Jesus. He has been put in prison and so he can talk about his chains. But isnít it amazing that instead of asking the Christians at Colosse to pray that the prison door would open for his release he instead asks them to pray that a door would be open for his message. He wants them to pray that during his prison stay God would open up more opportunities for him to pass on the good news about Jesus. Or in the words of verse 3 he wants to proclaim what he calls the mystery of Christ. Did you see that? The mystery of Christ. Now what does that mean?

A mystery is not the same thing as a riddle. A riddle may be difficult to solve but it can be solved by an individual given enough time. But a mystery is different. Because a mystery cannot be solved unless it is revealed by someone else. So, for example, at the moment I have something in my pocket but you donít know what it is and unless I tell you what it is it will remain a mystery to you. Now of course you could try and guess whatís in my pocket but unless I reveal the mystery to you, you will always be in the dark.

And the same is true when it consider the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without explanation the person of Jesus remains a mystery to the outsider. He or she cannot understand unless someone explains who Jesus is and what he has done. So take, for example, his death on the cross. What does that mean to an outsider? The tragic death of a man who died before his time? The brutal execution of a Jewish criminal? Frankly the death of Jesus is mysterious before it is explained. And so therefore Paul talks about proclaiming the mystery of Christ. Not because his message is mysterious or because his message is difficult to understand but because his message will reveal the mystery of who Jesus is and what he has done.

And so because he realizes the importance of explanation he asks the Christians at Colosse to pray that a door of opportunity would open up for his message. Now can I encourage the church here to be praying for that? For me personally and for each of you. So as I start work here in Hull as a full-time evangelist I would value your prayers that God would open a door of opportunity so that I can communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to non-Christians who are listening. And if you do that for me I promise to do that for you.

God wants us to pray for opportunities. He wants us to ask him to open up doors of possibility. And wonderfully because he is God he can open any doors he likes. So are you praying for the doors to be opened? Have a think about the people you know, the people who are within what I call your sphere of influence. They might be your friends, your family, the people you work beside, the people you play sport with, even just the people who live around you in this village/this estate. And then choose two or three of them and pray that God would give you an opportunity in the next month to speak to them about some aspect of the gospel. Devote yourself to praying for them and see what happens next.

Now I think itís important to say that not every opportunity to share the gospel is the same. Sometimes we get to say a lot but sometimes God only wants us to plant a seed of intrigue in the mind of an individual (wedding reception Ė see you again). So we need to get our expectations right. Occasionally God may provide us with a Philippian Jailor opportunity. Where the person we are speaking to suddenly turns to us and says "What must I do to be saved?" And if he does. Great! Seize the opportunity and give them the answer. Lead them to the Lord! But we do need to recognize that most of the opportunities that come our way will not present themselves as directly as this. Which of course begs the question: if that is the case, how do we spot a gospel opportunity?

Sometimes people ask us a question about what we believe. Thatís a gospel opportunity. Sometimes people ask us what weíve been up to at the weekend. Thatís a gospel opportunity. Sometimes people want to talk about the state of the world. Thatís a gospel opportunity. And I could go on and on. Because gospel opportunities come in all shapes and sizes.

But they wonít come unless we are devoted to prayer so I want to encourage us this morning to be Christians who are devoted to prayer and who therefore pray regularly for God to open the doors of opportunity for our message. Because when we do evangelism will be slightly less difficult.

Secondly, let me encourage us to be people who are dedicated to action. Whether we like it or not we are a walking advert for the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so therefore the question for us is not: will I choose to advertise the gospel? No, the question is, will I choose to advertise it well or will I choose to advertise it badly? Paul says be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. The time is short he says. Jesus is coming back. The gospel is urgent. And so therefore the way we behave is important. How we live matters. People are watching us and are checking the consistency between what we say and how we live. So Paul says be wise in the way you act towards outsiders.

And if we follow what he says, then I am convinced people will begin to take notice and begin to ask us question. Listen to this perceptive comment from a man called Jim Wallis. He says: "Evangelism in our day has largely become a packaged production, a mass-marketed experience in which evangelists strain to answer that question which nobody is asking. Modern evangelists must go through endless contortions to convince people that they are missing something that Christians have. Without the visible witness of a distinct style of life, evangelists must become aggressive and gimmicky, their methods reduced to salesmanship, and showmanship. Evangelism often becomes a special activity awkwardly conducted...instead of being a simple testimony rising out of a community whose life together invites questions from the surrounding society. When the life of a church no longer raises any questions, evangelism degenerates."

In his book "Iíll Fight" a man called Phil Wall recounts an event which happened in the old Soviet Union. A group of Christians were meeting in a church to pray, when a number of KGB soldiers rushed in with Kalashnikov rifles. ĎWe are going to shoot all the Christians in this roomí they shouted. ĎIf you are not a Christian leave now.í Some people left, but others stayed. The soldiers said to those who remained ĎYou donít seem to understand. We are going to shoot all the Christians who are here. If you are not really a Christian, this is your last opportunity to leave. Go now.í A few more left, but some stayed. The KGB men looked at the few who were left. ĎSo you are Christians, and you are prepared to die for your faith?í ĎYes, we areí they replied. ĎWell, that wonít be necessaryí said the soldiers as they put down their guns Ďbecause we want to become Christians too. We just needed to know that you were genuine.í

So if we want to make evangelism slightly less difficult then letís show the world that we are genuine and letís do that by being dedicated to action.

So first of all, be devoted to prayer, Secondly, be dedicated to action, and lastly, be deliberate in conversation. Or in the words of verse 6, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." So youíve said your prayers and by the power of the HS living in you, your life has been a great advert for the life changing news of Jesus Christ and someone has noticed. And so they begin to engage you in conversation. And you think to yourself "Aha, hereís one of those gospel opportunities that Lee was talking about on Sunday." But wait a minute what am I supposed to say now? Iíve been devoted to prayer, Iíve been dedicated to action but what do I actually say in the conversation? How do I make sure I donít muck it up?

First of all, ensure that your conversation is full of grace. Yes be gracious and courteous, that should go without saying, but make sure that you focus on the grace of God. Make sure you refer to the unconditional and unexpected love of God that is demonstrated in the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. Outsiders need to hear about grace. They so often think in terms of merit, and goodness and earning their way to heaven. And in our conversations with outsiders it is of course easier to talk about morality and church and religion. But Paul urges us to bite the bullet, to be brave, and to make our conversations full of grace. Because people need to hear about grace!

And, secondly, he says season them with salt. Now salt is distinctive. It stands out against the background. And Paul says Christians should drop the distinctive things of the gospel into conversation. The truths that stand out. Things that draw the lines.

So I think of a conversation my mum had on the train. Suitcase. Family. What does your son do? Are you religious? Quick as a flash. You threw some salt into the conversation. No, Iím not religious. Iím not into that. Iím a Christian.

Something I said on Friday night to two young guys who professed faith. Looking at Mk 8. Cost. Only an idiot would refuse because the costs of not are so great.

Now thatís salt and in needs to be part of our evangelistic conversations. I know its risky but in the end its worth taking the risk.

So if you want to make evangelism slightly less difficult Ė I presume you do because we are all members of a rescue service and people are perishing - then here are three helpful hints from the apostle PaulÖ


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