When my career was focused primarily on making medical videos, I had to spend a lot of time selling myself, being an evangelist for my business. Most of my work came through ad agencies and the challenge for me was finding the person at an agency who actually contracted video vendors. Finding that person was a search akin to finding Jimmy Hoffa. I quickly learned that I needed inside information if I was to have any success. So I would ask my existing clients if they new anyone at a different agency from whom I could get some work. They often obliged and would give me a phone number. Most importantly, I would ask, “May I use your name when I call this person?”
Usually they would say, “yes.” One client who always said I could use his name was a guy named Sam. However, Sam’s name turned out not the magic password he led me to believe it was. As I called the agencies Sam told me about, I would reach the creative directors on the phone and confidently say, “Sam recommended I call you.”
The person on the other end would always respond, “Oh yeah. I know Sam.”
A rather ambiguous response. This would happen time and time again. No, “Oh yeah I know Sam. He’s a great guy.” Or “Well if Sam uses you, you must be good.” Just a plain, “Oh Yeah. I know Sam,” and then the chirping of crickets.
Eventually, I realized that Sam’s recommendation was not highly valued in the medical video world. If I was to continue in the field, I would need the recommendation of someone else.
In the ancient world, recommendations were not simply names dropped in phone conversations, but took the form of letters. For instance, if you wanted to do trade with someone in another city and had never met them before, you couldn’t just direct them to your website. You needed to show up with a letter of recommendation. In the time of Paul, many preachers itinerated from place to place sporting credentials and letters to introduce them to believers in the new community.
As we have seen over the past few weeks, the church which Paul had begun in the city of Corinth had turned on him. Other preachers had apparently come into the city, with their letters of recommendation, and caused the Corinthians to question Paul’s orthodoxy and his motivations. In response, Paul could have easily bombarded them with his qualifications. Paul had some great credentials as a preacher. He had no qualms about listing the details of his Jewish pedigree to the church in Galatia. To them he once wrote, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Paul does do that with the Corinthians. Instead he says, he has a letter of recommendation and that letter is not a list of his credentials, but the people of the Corinthian church themselves. His audience, the people he brought into relationship with Jesus Christ, are better evidence of Paul’s character than any list of credentials would ever be.
When’s the last time you wrote a letter - not an email or tweet, but an actual letter? I imagine that for most of you, it has been a long time. But some of us would fare even worse if I asked when was the last time you wrote the kind of letter Paul wrote? Who in this world has a relationship with Christ because of you? Not who have you invited to church although that is important, but whose life has been changed because you introduced them to Jesus?
The loaded term for that is evangelism. It’s loaded because we associate it with a lot of baggage. We hear evangelism and we think of Evangelicals and a particular belief system or political agenda with which we may or may not agree. The word brings to mind people who pass out religious tracts or knock on your door asking leading questions like, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would end up?”
These bad experiences we may have had and our own preconceptions cannot mask the fact the Bible and the early Christians insisted that a healthy church creates new believers in Jesus Christ. That sounds horribly old-fashioned and conservative to some of you, I know. Yet it is part of who we are and is the core of our reason to exist in the first place. Look at it this way, if evangelism wasn’t central to the Christianity, you and I wouldn’t be here today, since we never would have heard about Jesus. Evangelism is who we are.
I am puzzled by old-line traditional churches who form evangelism committees, as if making new disciples was an add-on or special program of the church. What in the world have those churches been doing for a hundred years? A church starting an evangelism committee is like a church starting a religion committee. It makes no sense. It is redundant. Quite simply, if a church isn’t evangelizing, it isn’t a church but a country club with bad music. Evangelism isn’t an aspect of what the church is, it is what the church is.
So how do we move beyond the baggage and misconceptions some of us may have about that word, and begin writing those letters of in the hearts of people? The first thing is to expand our idea of what evangelism is. It is more than just using clever arguments to get people to change their beliefs about God or Jesus. Brow beating people into the “correct” beliefs is that letter of the law Paul writes about. That letter kills, he says , but the spirit give life. It is more than just getting people to say some magic prayer. It is about far more than getting people into heaven.
A pastor who great influence on me was Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg church in Ohio. He once said, “Jesus isn’t about getting people into heaven but getting the purposes of heaven into people, who will then release the resources of heaven into earth.” If that sounds alien to you, I suggest you check out the Lord’s Prayer sometime.
I believe we are called to evangelize, or spread the good news about Jesus, so that people will have a life-changing relationship with a living Christ. The purpose of that relationship is not to ensure their eternal destination so much as it is simply to have that relationship. A life that is lived, following Jesus and all that it entails, is a life infused with meaning and purpose.
I believe God wants more people following the path of Christ, not so he knows whom not to destroy, but because more people living as disciples restores God’s creation to what God intended it to be. It restores the broken image of God which is inside each of us. It transforms not just the believer, but the whole world.
When we zoom out for the wide shot and see evangelism in that broader perspective, we can drop a lot of the baggage we associate with that word. The good news about the good news is that you and I don’t change people’s hearts, God does. As a healthy church our job is to create the spaces and opportunities for the Holy Spirit to write that letter in people’s hearts. Those spaces and opportunities can come in a variety of ways.
It can happen in worship. Several years ago, Sally Morganthaller wrote a book called “Worship Evangelism”. She posited the view that rather than try to make church attractive to the unchurched through gimmicks and de-emphasizing Christ, just the opposite was more effective. When people encounter a church that is explicitly worshipping and preaching about Jesus, that is in and of itself attractive. That is why here at Vision, although we worship in a style that is indigenous to who we are, it is never gimmicky or watered-down. We are always clear about who it is we are worshipping and following.
Another space or opportunity for evangelism is through mission. Words get in the way of the point I’m trying to make here. Like evangelism, I believe mission is not an aspect of the church, it is the church. That is why we don’t have a mission or evangelism committee here at Vision. Perhaps it’s more accurate to use the phrase “ministries that alleviate human suffering.”
Activities like Midnight Run, or Workcamp are transformational, not just to those whom we serve through those ministries, but to we who serve in those ministries. God wired some of you in such a way that sermons or Bible studies are not where you principally encounter God. For you, getting your hands dirty serving others is holy. Mission is evangelism and not because it brings in socially conscious people who can later have their beliefs changed. Mission is in and of itself introducing people to Jesus. We encounter Christ in he faces of those we serve and they see Christ in us.
When I was a young teenager, I was very excited about being a Christian. I wanted to, and did, go around handing out pamphlets, argue with people - all that fun stuff. In contrast, many of the Christians I knew at the time told me that the way we could most effectively witness for Christ was by the way we led our lives. While that is certainly true, it struck me, as we used to say in the seventies, as a “cop-out”.
Worship, mission, and living the Christian life are all spaces and opportunities in which people can be called to become disciples. I am not suggesting that we need to pass out tracts of “The Four Spiritual Laws” or engage people in argument and debate. However, the bad news about spreading the good news, is that eventually you are going to have to talk to someone about Jesus. I don’t mean telling them about your great church or wonderful pastor, but telling them about Jesus.
“But I don’t know anything about Jesus,” you may protest. Well if you don’t know anything about Jesus, you may want to work on that because it’s doubtful you can truly be a follower of someone and know nothing of the person you’re following. Even so, few of us feel like we’re experts on every point of orthodoxy or stellar examples of Christian perfection. That’s okay because those things are what Paul calls the “letter of the law” and he says they kill.
The good news about spreading the good news is you don’t have to be those things. Paul says there once was a letter of the law and now through Jesus there is a new covenant, a new order, that finds its authority in the Spirit. That Spirit is found not in stone tablets, a book, clever arguments or religious tracts. It is written in the hearts of believers.
If you have experienced the power of the Risen Christ in your life, the Spirit has written in your heart. That letter was written most likely because of someone who told you about Jesus. You are their letter of recommendation.
The Spirit has written a story in your life. There is nothing people find more compelling than a story. So if talking about Jesus intimidates you, try sharing your story. Tell the people in your life how Christ has a made a difference to you. Tell them about your own journey of transformation.
It is not our knowledge or skill that will transform other people. It is only Spirit of Christ working through each of us and our stories that can do that. Besides worship and mission, you and I are spaces and opportunities through which the Holy Spirit can write a letter in people’s hearts. In turn those people become our letters of recommendation and say something about who we are as human beings.
So let me ask a different question about what will happen after you die. After you are gone will people say, “Oh yeah I knew her” followed by the cricket sound? Or will they say, “Oh yeah, I knew her. She introduced me to Christ and it changed my life. Hey, let me tell you the story…”