"You are God's Letter to Others"
September 8, 1996 message
Last week, I began a series of sermons on what we might call Congregational Megatrends, changes taking place, or soon to happen, in Christ's church in our society. Though the foundations of our faith remain, some basic assumptions about how we operate are shifting. The church no longer holds the position of privilege it once did in the community. Whereas once we could assume most people understood the importance of "church," we can do so no longer. More than ever we need to justify our existence. In so doing, we need to adapt to changing times ... with integrity.
Some have said that today's church is becoming more like the early church than the church that has dominated the western world during the last 1,700 years. If that's the case, then those who seek to live as the early church did may have some reason to hope. Now, I was taught that such a way of living was the Brethren vision. It remains to be seen, though, if such a dream can catch fire in this church: this congregation or this denomination.
In this series, I'm borrowing from the book, Congregational Megatrends, by C. Jeff Woods, a recent publication of the Alban Institute. In it, the author fleshes out 7 trends in the church, one at a time, in which change is in the process of taking place. The first relates to a fundmental purpose: evangelism. Much of what I say today should come as no surprize, for we've been over most of this territory before. Therefore, it's a good place to start.
A shift is happening away from "mass evangelism" to "relational evangelism." In the past, we've used the word "friendship" rather than "relational." For many of us, even now, when we think of evangelism, some type of crusade comes to mind. You know, thousands of people gathered in a stadium, hearing the gospel faithfully preached by someone like Billy Graham, responding to the call by coming forward and making a commitment to Christ. That's obviously "mass evangelism." Did you know that the Billy Graham Association openly says that around half of the people who walk down the aisle at their crusades give a false name and address when asked to fill out an information card? What this reveals is that many people are uneasy about being contacted later on by a stranger. Already established relationships are a vital part of evangelism, today more so than in the past.
Crusades are not the only kind of mass evangelism we have been about. Brethren used to flourish by growing their own, raising children by the bushel-load. Some of us still do, but we're not the trend. Families are smaller, and fewer children are choosing the same church as their parents, if they choose church at all.
One temptation is to perceive programming as an evangelistic arm of the church. We started down that road with our "Mother's Together," until we realized that few families became a part of our fellowship because of this program. It is an outreach which meets a particular need, but it is not an evangelistic program. More and more today, evangelism comes out of personal relationships, not some program aim at a mass market.
The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have made door-to-door visitation their stock and trade. I know of few people who like making or receiving such calls. I don't. I'd rather go to a dentist. Where such visitation really works is when it focuses on the individual rather than the general population; that is, when a relationship has been established prior to knocking on the door. Are you hearing the theme repeated over and over?
The "mass evangelism" technique our congregation, like most, counts on is "waiting." When people enter our doors, we do a better job than most in making them feel welcome. We are a warm fellowship, a friendly church. But that's a passive strategy. Our theology may say alot about pacifism, but not about "passive-ism." People must have a reason to come. Now, some churches use the "Field of Dreams" method, constructing new facilities believing that if they build it, people will come. That's just not the case.
Primarily, people come because they are invited by someone they know personally. In a recent survey of 22 congregations in 3 major cities, newcomers were asked, "What brought you to this church?" The response: 2% said it was an advertisement, 6% by invitation of the pastor, 6% through an organized evangelistic outreach program, and 86% came because of an invitation by a friend or family member. Notice, the invitation came from a "friend," not just a "someone." "People don't necessarily remember what they are told of God's love, but they never forget what they have experienced of God's love. The old mass evangelism is about "telling," while relational evangelism is about "experiencing."
When we look to the New Testament, the "new" is actually old. While there are stories of mass conversion, particularly around the Pentecost story in the beginning of the book of Acts, the overwhelming pattern is more relational - one-by-one, and more more experiential. Proclaiming/telling the good news is important, but experiencing it makes it real.
In his 2nd letter to the believers in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes in vivid language about this kind of evangelism. His terms appeal to almost all the senses. Yes, he begins with a parade, which is a "mass" event, talking about how God leads us around in a triumph procession. But, notice, that's showing, not telling. We are on display, Paul is saying. People see the good news in us. It's not just what we say, but what we do that matters.
Then Paul appeals to the sense of smell, referring to us as the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of life, both to those who respond positively and those who respond negatively. When he finally gets around to hearing, listen to what he says, "we are not peddlars, hucksters of God's word ... in Christ we speak as persons with sincerity." How do you really know if someone is sincere, unless you know them personally? In this high tech age, people need high touch, as certainly as they did back in Bible times. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Another image Paul uses to describe evangelism is a letter, a personal note from one individual to another, or to a group; something that can not only be seen, but held in your hands, touched. "You are a letter of Christ," he writes. Of course, this letter is not written with ink, nor is it chiseled upon some stone that remains for all time, unmoveable, impersonal, cold. No, we are God's letter, the Holy Spirit figuratively being the ink written on our hearts.
Okay, so Paul didn't include the sense of taste, but his point is clear, people who don't know Christ experience him through personal contact with us: seeing how we live, catching a whiff of something that smells pretty good in an often-rotten world, hearing our sincerely spoken words, not just spouting off our lips, but written on our hearts. That is, we believe this stuff enough to live it, enough to dare inviting others to do so also.
Evangelism is relational. After all, we're inviting people into a relationship with Someone. Yes, our desire is that persons will commit their lives to Christ, but compassion experienced one to one is the route. As Kennon Callahan writes. "In order for the church to reach the grass roots and the unchurched, we need people with more compassion, not more commitment... The text does not say, "We are committed to Jesus because Jesus was first committed to us." It reads, "We love Jesus because Jesus first loved us." Such evangelistic love does not happen all at once, though it is sponteneous - it's shared whenever appropropriate. Such evangelism is long term, and appeals to each person uniquely.
You are God's letter to others. A love letter. And in this new day and age, you are the most important part of this basic mission of the church we call evangelism. Everyone of us. Granted, some of us have a real gift for evangelism, for saying the right things at the right times that help people make a connection - that is, become connected to to One who first loved them. We need to do better at discovering those persons with this God-furnished gift, and train them in the usage of it. Who, in this congregation, would you discern as being such an evangelist?... Still, everyone has a part in relational evangelism. You are God's letter to others.
In that book by Jeff Woods, there's a quote that felt good to this slightly introverted, intuitive pastor of yours: "New leaders must be relational. Relationships are more important than ever. Churches want leaders who are real and approachable. This does not mean they must be extroverts or always working the crowd. Leaders must live where their people live, feel their emotions, and intuitively sense their thoughts." That's sort-of how I see my style of ministry. Am I wrong?
Let me end with a homework assignment. In the coming week, I'd like each of you to think of three people you know, whom you think don't attend any church now. That's all. Just think of three individuals - friends, persons with whom you have a relationship. Keep them in your thoughts all week. Come back next Sunday with them in mind.
"I love to tell the story," the old hymn hymn goes, "because I know (because I've experienced it as being) true" in my life. Let's sing together the first 2 verses of #398.
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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