"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Out of the Catacombs...

WE CHRISTIANS RIDE a rough road in today's church bus. We suffer it seems from a diminished evangelistic skill within American society. Fewer seats are filled. Not as many  people are attending worship..
 Many would-be prophets give us reason for this, saying that our voices now express the gospel within a post-Christian, scientific world in America. Thus our efforts are often relegated to doing worthy social ministry. In this scenario, any devout evangelistic Christian is portrayed as a out-of-touch person; one who offers an out-dated belief system, one that does not address the realistic needs of the modern populace.
 To these pundits I answer… the message of Christ is one that over arches all geography, social strata, and historical reference. I believe it is not that our message is irrelevant in modern society, for sin is still sin and salvation in Christ is still eternal salvation.
 Our shortcoming in many denominations of the Church comes from our national history, one stunned to silence by the numerical brightness of European immigration for several centuries. The early Europeans immigrated, had children... and when Christian remained faithful to Baptism and fellowship. So in a general sense, the Church grew by procreation. However, this is no longer so. Birthrate has slowed. The modern penchant toward smaller families, birth control and abortion throws a wrench in the wheels of the church bus.The result is that we have stopped growing, and what's worse... we have forgotten how to do evangelism.

 It is certain that we have been far too content to stay in our church circles until numerical depopulation or budgetary concerns arise. In reaction we then often link growth and prosperity with various evangelism programs. For most congregations and denominations, these have thankfully failed.
 Be aware, however, that successful church growth may occasionally be attributed to a population spurt within a geographic area... and not fully the result of evangelical fervor. Though population changes may influence a measure of evangelical success, we should ask ourselves how many more persons could have been reached by a fervent evangelical effort within that same locale.
 Some may argue that growth also occurs as evangelical churches offer various methods of entertainment to woo attendees. While I concede that modern worship settings do offer tangible benefits, we must note that care must be taken. I dare say that temporary successes in praise-only based, feel-good evangelism may not establish a permanent, lasting relationship between our Creator and his people. What happens when the praise music stops?


Proclaim The Faith!
Evangelism is an important responsibility of the Church regardless of attendance figures or the bottom line in prosperity. Evangelism should not be a task undertaken simply to fill the seats of a waning denomination or individual church bus. To do so intentionally is self-serving. That sort of evangelism is a sinful distortion, viewing the hearing public as malleable pawns within the strategic growth aims of a church or denomination. Unfortunately, this has been the tactics of too many mega-church evangelists. Instead, we are called to plainly and freely declare the good news of salvation in Christ for the salvation strictly benefit of the hearer. This mandate yet exists as our first calling, because our Lord said to His disciples…

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.“ (Matt 28:18-20)

 Based upon this text, therefore, we may safely say that proclamation by the early church was indeed a great priority. Evangelism was not placed as an adjunct responsibility of a synod or district committee, nor relegated as a minor duty of a priest, pastor, or even an appointed evangelist. Evangelical mission was given to the entire Church by our Lord, and consequently placed upon every disciple as primary. We are still called personally to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in order that this sin-ridden world may embrace Christ... and face a brighter tomorrow. Once having heard the gospel, persons may walk with us even into a dim future, by knowing the grace of forgiveness and God’s eternal companionship. This is the loving heart of Christian evangelism!

Be Apostolic!
We must return to those apostolic methods for the modern evangelical task. Though we consider ourselves now more highly evolved in modern, scientific society than the days of ancient Rome, we are not proven to be better in human character. The words spoken by the apostles and other followers of Jesus may still possess the eternal power of the Spirit to reach out and touch the souls of those who hear. Though the modern world has deepened the mire of distractions, a Spirit-empowered evangelist must wade through this to stir the soul. The distractions cannot block the message guided by the Holy Spirit unless we remain silent.
 You see, I believe that modern civilization can yet embrace the Word, but the Church must go out and proclaim of the Good News in the world about us. If we leave the American podium vacant, other ersatz powers will claim that territory.
 Since the early 1500s and the Reformation, the church has taught us to define God’s Word into two categories… Law and Gospel. This bad news/good news language of the church, however, does not always translate well into modern American society. How then do we begin? Both success and failures are possible. Are we ready for them? God wasn't too lazy to save us... are we too lazy to read His Word?


 

 To illustrate proper action, imagine if we take a scriptural view of the possible responses from a person to whom evangelical efforts are given. I cite the parable that Jesus told about sowing the seed. (see Matt 13:1-9) As we read that text, we immediately see that some gospel seed will not take root.
 First, we know that a modern person may attempt to deny the existence of the Divine lawgiver, and thus try to negate the teachings of the Law and thwart the conviction in sin. Sadly, this stance may hold one in good material comfort in today’s world even though the soul may erode. Modern demonic powers lure many people into a restive and self-centered atheism.
 Enter the conversation knowing that these individuals may attempt to keep God out of the arena of everyday life by denying or ignoring the Creator. They replace the Law of God with the laws of government or society, thus falling victim to legal subjectivism. They cling to the court of popular opinion. We may counter this by saying that what was illegal one day, and then legal the next... or vice-versa. Upon this world there lays no firm ground..
 How should we deal with this faith denial? First, know that we can do nothing without prayer. The Spirit's presence and working is crucial. An atheistic stance, should rightly and prayerfully be placed within the care of the Holy Spirit. After such prayers are spoken, we are called to declare the salvation of God boldly in the face of unbelief. If the atheistic person rejects your witness, then we have been instructed to shake the dust off our feet as we continue to declare the Word to others. We know that truly we have done our task. God will be God... and the Holy Spirit will work. That God is all-knowing and infinitely caring is our reward. To attempt more, becomes for us a prideful control issue with which we must deal as disciples.

Shallow Ground
Of concern are those persons within our society who relegate the Creator to the realm of “the man upstairs”. These casual believers declare the occupant of the apartment upstairs as “out to lunch”, until they have need to take a prod and tap the ceiling. This may occur when tall buildings fall, bombs explode and the uncontrollable intrudes into the modern living space. By their posture adopted, these casuals open themselves to evangelistic efforts when the horrid event occurs. During this time, by their recognition of a “higher power”, they can be engaged in holy conversation. However, we must take note of their driving force. Like the seed strewn among the rocks, they may only seek a temporary “healing” of sorts, as did many who surrounded Jesus during his earthly ministry.
 In this case, we must realize that after the balm of the Gospel is applied, the sores cultivated by modern distractions often return. Some persons may fade back into the compartmental dungeons of modern life, but finally and most promising, some of our words will fall on fertile hearts prepared by the Spirit. A persons may one day be incorporated by your efforts into a faith community that becomes part of their very being. The words that lead them through the first planting may seem to fall fallow, but to say them is our calling. It is about this “planting of the seed” process that this article speaks.

Forgiven Sinners Reaching Sinners!
Note here that any evangelical effort begins with a prayer of thanksgiving for our own salvation. We must realize that the message we carry into society is that we are saved by grace, and not by any attribute of our own deserving. We are yet sinners before God’s Law, who have been lovingly freed by Christ... and are now chosen to accomplish a given task.
 Remember this! As sinners in conversation with other sinners, we may thus claim common ground. As Paul states in his letter to Rome…, all have sinned and...

“... the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)


 Thus is the imperative to bring persons with whom we speak to the realization that we are collectively and individually sinful. Being mutually sinful, we then tell our companion that we are saved by grace only through faith given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gift that is freely given to us... by God through the Holy Spirit... even though we should stand as condemned.


Approaching The Un-Churched
 As disciples in the now pluralistic society in North America, we have been given faint and firm boundaries within the realm of the modern. We are told both overtly and covertly that there are certain arenas where evangelical speech is not appropriate. Prayers are formerly banned in many public sites. Recent video has shown the unfounded arrest of a Christian evangelist preaching in the public square. In many modern corporations, any bubblings of religious fervor are soon popped by the power brokers of commercial endeavor. Any religious discourse that would possibly offend any worker, or the consumer, is banned from the workplace. Thus an evangelically-minded Christian who pursues such course in the public arena may be quickly labeled as a “bible thumper”, and may be punished by various methods… including ridicule, ostracism, an official statement of “cease and desist”, or termination of the held position.
 The only exception to this scornful course seemingly exists where being “pro” Christian and evangelical is deemed as profitable. This latter situation is often detected when the Church is being courted by the surrounding government, society or business. For example, our federal government was recently challenged to respond quickly to a natural disaster that afflicted the southern U.S. When the natural malady befell the region, many in public leadership held that the Church could step forward in recovery ministries. “Do your good works thing!” was expressed in the Church's ear. I find it incredible that the law tries to limit the arena for gospel proclamation, but the same lawmaking entities find it good and proper for the Church to do relief tasks in puddles where the government drowns or finds mud.

How to Approach?
If we examine our predecessors in faith within scripture, we find that Christianity grew in a society that was often “over-against” the early church and its proclamation. We ask then, "How did the gospel message succeed?" Again we turn to scriptural source, as St Paul wrote…

“That in my preaching I may make gospel (good news) free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free of all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more… to the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all persons, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor 9, paraphrased)

 We know the early church accomplished proclamation of salvation through Christ, but that speech did not emerge easily. Yet, even during the persecutions of the early church, the Spirit assured that the gospel message would survive and the Church could grow. While we do not usually suffer open persecution of this sort at present, we still find ourselves socially restrained. I contend that our conversation can be initiated to the un-churched using a myriad of methods. Our first tool is to tap the innate human curiosity of citizens within the free American society. For example of this, I offer an actual, real-life evangelical stage…
 A working man came to his place of employment dressed in usual hardhat. He donned his orange safety vest. He then worked alongside many others on the construction job, including those with whom he would eat lunch. When lunch time came, he took off his vest and thus revealed his “T-shirt” (a very common media for all sorts of sayings and advertisement). His shirt had the letters R-U-AH across the front pectorial area, and the letters possessed an “ICTHUS” fish symbol beneath them. On his back was a picture of his church and its name.
The man, when eventually questioned by a co-worker about the cryptic logo, began to explain its source in meaning, that "RUAH" is the Hebrew word for Spirit. He then told a bit of Christian history… and then made his faith profession using the framework of the Apostles Creed. In that way, he related both sinfulness and salvation. He concluded with an invitation for anyone listening who would want to come to worship services with him. While shunned later by some co-warkers, he opened a subtle avenue for holy conversation with others..
 Recently it was said by a local teacher that she was afraid to be gospel proclaiming because of her position within a public school. Knowing that the modern education realm often does not tolerate open evangelical dialogue, when she was queried by a curious student as to her plans for the evening, she simply said… “I’m going to a bible study. You can come if you’d like.”
 Consequently and acceptably, without compulsion to the student... she witnessed to the faith by which she guides her life. Would the student inquire further, or go to the Bible Study, or to Church? Will the student go to her own church? The subtle guidance of the teacher and the student’s reaction to the Spirit, shall determine the response.
 A few years ago I witnessed a gentle “bed and breakfast” evangelical effort spilling forth. While lodging at a small town establishment, a visitor found their delicious breakfast laid out on the morning table. Alongside her dish she found a small, flowered bi-folded card. When opened, the card revealed a single biblical wisdom saying for the day, complete with the source chapter and verse from the biblical book of Proverbs. Then, in the time that it took to serve the remainder of the meal, a Christian witness unfolded from the owner of the establishment. On that same Sunday morning the visitor at the inn stood at the entry way of the hostel owner’s church.
 Another person, who as a Christian came from an upbringing within Roman Catholicism, retains the custom of placing her rosary beads in her pocket at the beginning of each day. As she digs for change at the store, the gas station, the ice cream stand… or virtually any opportunity… she hauls out both her change and her beads. They have become a sign of her identity in the same way that her ancient forebears in Roman days wore a locket with a fish or cross symbol inscribed. The woman was heard saying “Oh, there’s my beads!” If the bait was taken, even in a vague smile… she found delight in playfully telling any interested onlooker about the practice of her faithful oddity.., gradually relating sinfulness, salvation and invitation in practiced style. With very little prompting she would tell about how the beads helped guide her prayers through a daughter’s perilous accident. In true “fisherman” legacy she placed the bait and set a Christian hook. Thus some onlooker would show up on our Lord’s boat from a stormy sea.
 Given these examples, whether subtle or more blatant... let others know your faith. A simple cross worn may be sufficient. Click on the label below to see a pendant available...



Preparing for the Task
The potential for our evangelistic success is very high in American society. As our Lord has pointed out, “the harvest is ready, but workers are few”. But in the fast-paced modern world, we strive to do this task in a consistent method. First prepare! Ask any avid fisherman.., getting prepared can be rewarding.
 Consider memorizing just a few verses. The first we mentioned from St. Paul serves to establish commonality with the hearer… ALL are sinful! (Romans 3:23).
 But then, we point out that we are delivered by God’s grace… "justified (made right by God) by grace through faith given (again, it’s free!), through the redemption (payment) which is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

 Stating the gospel clearly, and emphasizing that though we cannot work or earn our way to the heavenly realm by good deeds, the final result is that we are justified in a gift.
 We are often asked then, "But why would God do such a outrageous act?"
 Only one reason is given…“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that who ever believes in him should have eternal life”. (John 3:16)
 Ahh… there it is... as the central message, God’s love poured out! At this point we may stress that the gift given is ours regardless of any earthly power. We no longer have to worry about our own lot. That eternal life guarantee begins from the time of Baptism, and continues until the “end” of the age. Since Jesus Christ has told us that he is the beginning and the end of all things... we are thus safely secured by the love of God.
 Now, consider what this will do for those to whom you witness. They are freed from this world’s tyranny and also become freed of its measures. They have become God’s servant. The person who receives your witness can now eventually join you to work in Christ for the betterment of all.
 You see, in order to do evangelism to persons within society, we must break out into the world from the catacombs of modern religious molds. Each person must interact with others where they live and within society. Be aware, however, that each time we strike up conversation with a child of God who has been distanced from our Lord by the world, we evangelically intrude upon evil. Yet the result can be astounding.
 Know that opportunities exist to witness in places of employment, social clubs, bowling leagues, at football games, military-related activities such as VFW clubs and American Legion....and a multitude of other events. The initial tone can be either humorous or heavy laden. Your witness can be made on a ride to an amusement park, while waiting in a traffic jam, or in the armchairs of a one-day surgery waiting room of a hospital. The approach and conversation entry point can be as varied as the humanity that is doing the task or hearing the message.
 I simply say to you… be evangelically-minded! Start now. If you put off the task, it may not get done. Remember, our Lord said… GO therefore into all nations… and I am bold enough to add “NOW”.
  Each evangelist has a skill, interest or trade which causes them to interact with others. You may have heard the adage that “no one is an island unto themselves”. Then add to this, that the foundations of friends and family in our society are not too different from that of the first disciples.
 Ask yourself what key symbols or words used within the common endeavor are examples of biblical lessons. In example, I often have wished that I could master the art of gardening or trimming those wondrous tiny Japanese trees. What marvelous and fertile ground for witness that could be! The introduction could go like this…
 Mr. Evangel… “Wow, this little bonsai tree is beginning to shape up, I’ve been working on it for about a month.”
Mrs. Mackerel… “Uh huh…”

Mr. Evangel… “I wonder how Jesus did it. (the bait is cast)
Mrs Mackerel… “Did what?”    (Gotcha!)

Mr. Evangel… “Oh.., he taught about trimming branches. I think he knew a lot about gardening.”

Mrs. Mackerel… Really? You’re kidding right?
Mr. Evangel… “No.., he really did teach us using plants…” (And now witnessing occurs in grand fashion using the story of the Jesus in the vineyard)

 Remember! The biblical stories move from scripture to everyday, modern life and your witnessing will progress from there. Use your memorized verses, such as those I’ve previous offered, or possibly use a known prayer or Christian creed to guide your witness. Realize that such items as the Apostles' Creed are witness tools!

 The task is much like fishing.., you know the habitat of your prize and you use appropriate metaphor or stories to cast into conversation. But like fishing, it takes practice to get the basket full. Try practicing your cast with a member of your church. In fly fishing, it often takes prayerful practice before confidence allows ever going to the stream. But going to the stream is a must. A book that I have acquired may give your further guidance.



 Also as example, a holy conversation may begin with when baking a pie with a family member. It can begin with a simple… “Do you know the biblical story of leaven?” In this, first know the central applicable statement of Jesus concerning leavening, then look for ways to use that in evangelical conversation. Then the story sequence of sin, the sacrifice of Christ, forgiveness, and deliverance follows.
 If you knit in a quilting club… use wool, lost sheep, worn out comforter blankets.., etc. The possibilities are endless!
 In the technical world this can also be accomplished. For example, if you work in a metallurgical lab, ask yourself what the connections are between scripture and hardening the metal by fire? Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
 For example, ask yourself how metal items are case hardened? They are buried in carbon, like we in the dirt of sin! How does softening or annealing happen? Using a sustained application of heat, a brittle hard metal may be annealed, softened to a malleable entity… this sounds like images of the Law applied... hellfire! And we suffer conviction… softened by being put in the oven. Thus we, like iron, are made into a hardened workable tool by the heat of the divine Holy Spirit… tough and ready for holy service.
 If you work around water, such as a dishwasher in a restaurant, what biblical symbols fit? How can this symbol lead us conversationally to the idea of Holy Baptism? Yes, to quote a childhood poem, whether “butcher, baker or candlestick maker”, we can do the task for the future of the church in gospel proclamation.

 Does all this seem far fetched? I think not… we have simply lost our spiritual imagination. Pray.., imagine, and pray again for guidance. Read scripture, then step out in witness… that is the starting point of evangelism! Use what God has provided. Check out...



 Start with what you know and move toward the divine knowledge that the Spirit will give. On this the church of Christ across the ages has endured and grown.
 I offer you a last note concerning witness told to me about a man who carpooled. He simply said to his driver… “I went to church over the weekend, and it was a little confusing. We say the Creed.., you know. It starts, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
 How long do you think it took him? I mean was it seven days or seven billion years?”

The result was a conversation about creation that continued in stages for a period of weeks, and the passenger was invited and moved by the Spirit toward becoming a member of a church.
 As an evangelist, I say to you.... DO IT! The results may be glorious. You may have noted various publications above to further guide your efforts. Read them and speak to your pastor about your renewed calling. On the job training is an ancient industrial method still used in the modern world.