Maybe you are like me in having attended dozens of evangelism training sessions over the years. I have both learned and taught the Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge, Steps to Peace With God, Evangelism Explosion and a number of other methods and approaches. Each of these tools may have its merits, especially in focusing the content of the gospel on Jesus and a person’s response of faith in him. At least in the circles I travel in, there has been a substantial amount of talk about what we say to people. My concern lately, however, has been with the equally important issue of how we meet and relate to the people we desire to share this message with.
Along with my pastoral ministry within the church, it has been my privilege to have the opportunity to be involved in many community activities. For many years, I have also taught part-time in a couple of universities and a community college in my area where I have met literally hundreds of students from nearly every walk of life. This experience has resulted in some pretty seasoned views about how to relate to people as a genuine Christian. So, here are some things to keep in mind as you meet people who do not openly profess the Christian faith.
- First don’t assume that, because a person is not actively attending an evangelical church, he or she is automatically an unbeliever. Some Christians have become inactive in their church life or in personal walk due to a variety of circumstances, including: moving to a new city, a change of work schedule, a lapse in personal routine or spiritual discipline, a separation from an important spiritual influence, such as a parent or a much-respected Christian friend, being hurt by other Christians, etc.
Before I go on, let me speak to the issue of church category. Again, simply because a person attends a church which is not similar to yours, it does not necessarily mean that they are involved in a compromised form of Christianity. There are genuine believers in the biblical Jesus in a variety of churches, which may be somewhat different from your own.
- Secondly, when relating to those who do not profess Christian faith, don’t set up an “us and them” situation in your mind. Remember that Jesus spoke with all sorts of people without seeming to categorize them as religious or non-religious. He told some of the most unlikely people that they were very close to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 21:32), while people who were outwardly religious were told they could not even see the Kingdom unless they experienced radical inward change (John 3:3). People are generally offended by being classified and they are usually pretty quick to sense that, from your perspective, they are “outsiders”. The truth from God’s perspective is that some people we might not ever suspect are only a step or two from eternal life.
- Learn to genuinely appreciate and enjoy people for what they are. Notice I didn’t say you must accept everything about them or even befriend every person you meet. Obviously some people will be more likeable to you than others. The point is, that the first step in receiving a fair hearing as you share your faith in Jesus (as well as in expressing other values and commitments which are very dear to you), is to treat a variety of people with a common level of appreciation and respect. If you are willing to like people you meet, that usually comes across clearly to most reasonable folks. People like to be liked.
- Not everyone is reasonable. A certain percentage of people don’t have either the personality, emotional stability, mental clarity or maturity of character to give you a fair hearing. (By the way, this includes committed Christians.) There are people who are generally angry and take it out on those around them. Others may have met someone in their past whom they came to dislike intensely and who seems in their mind to be like you. There are judgmental people; cruel people; argumentative people; mean people; fearful people; manipulative people—I could go on. Just get used to the idea that, willing though you may be to like those you meet, not everyone will return the favor.
- As a professed follower of Jesus, you represent him. No one alive now has ever seen Jesus. We read about him in scripture or are taught in church and get an understanding of who he is in that way. But at the present time, his followers act as his visible body. Like it or not, as the hands and feet of Jesus, people look at you and see him. This truth speaks volumes about how we behave ourselves: how we think and speak and act. In other words, how we live as followers of Jesus is at least as important as the words we say about him or how we say them.
- When someone does show an openness to you and your faith, you may want to extend an invitation to attend a situation in which they can observe believers acting like believers under the influence of God’s word.
o An invitation to a church service is an easy entry-point. In many churches on Sunday morning, visitors are not be singled out or embarrassed, but can sit and simply observe while at the same time being exposed to scripture and the gospel.
o Perhaps a special event will be of particular interest to them. Care groups, programs for their children, women’s and men’s groups and activities, as well as youth events are all options which may meet a certain need in their life.
o Maybe the best option is to offer a chance to spend time together with you. Something as simple as a cup of coffee and some conversation for a few minutes can develop into a friendship, which can lead to a deep sharing of the Christian faith. It goes without saying that it is usually best for men to befriend men and women to befriend other women. Don’t forget that the gospel is all about transformation of life from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13-14). As a friend, your own story will be of great interest to them and perhaps of deep influence on them.
With these reminders clearly before us, sharing Christian faith in the postmodern culture of the Twenty-first Century does not have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a hugely rewarding experience and a stimulus to growth in areas we may have yet to experience.
A Remedy for Routine Prayer
Is anyone besides me tired of the standard prayers typically prayed by Christians? Perhaps you can relate to what I am talking about: “Dear God, please bless so-and-so with (health, a job, salvation, a renewed spiritual interest, an easier life, etc).” Not that there is anything particularly wrong with these things. They may indeed be legitimate matters for prayer. It does strike me, though, that we Christians often settle for so little when we make requests of God.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t really understand what is permissible to ask God for. Maybe we just get caught up in responding to the urgent felt-needs of those around us. Maybe we have become creatures of habit, falling into the set patterns of our particular circle of friends and church associates. Whatever the reason, I sometimes find typical evangelical prayer sessions to be insipid and all-too predictable: the same categories of prayer; the same focus on immediate physical and material needs; the same salvation requests.
Prayer sessions can easily be dominated by two or three people who don’t mind being either the center of attention or the perpetually needy ones. Maybe you can relate to feeling like this at a prayer gathering, “Here we go again. Brother Sam has been feeling upset again this week. He is requesting that God will remove the source of his frustration. Beside him, brother Ned needs a job for the third time in the past six months. Sister Sue is asking for her son’s salvation just as she has since we have first known her. Another sister has urgent health issues and can hardly function in her daily routines. (But, if so, how is she well enough to come to this prayer-gathering?) Across the circle, sister Mary is sharing another compelling story she came across on the internet this week. She wants prayer for an individual a continent away who has been “on her heart” for days but whom none of us has ever met. So we bow our heads and ask God to intervene.
Let me be clear: I am not condemning such prayers or the people who pray them. In my experience, the motives of those who make these kinds of requests are usually good. They care about people and they want God to bless them. Yet I have become increasingly discontent with prayer requests which go no further than this. It is entirely possible that, as a pastor, I am simply jaded by attending many dozens of these prayer sessions. Maybe I am also frustrated by the lack of discernible growth in these dear folks whose prayers seem to be on the same level year after year. It could be argued that these types of prayers simply reflect poor biblical teaching on the part of their leaders, including me. What I do know is that we ought to be asking God for much more than this.
So, I have put together a collection of prayer requests, which I believe are more in line with those modeled in scripture. I am urging that, along with praying for jobs and protection and the solving of various problems (all of which may be valid) that my fellow believers should consider praying “outside the routine box”. But what does a biblical, yet edgy prayer request look like? Let me give some examples. Try praying that people:
- Develop a deep love for God
- Have thoughts, words and actions controlled by the Holy Spirit
- Become willing to accept a life-changing direction from God
- Experience a sacrificial attitude in marriages, families and other relationships
- Come to genuine repentance
- Be a voice for Christ’s Kingdom when one is needed
- Develop the mental commitment and toughness to resist temptation
- Become competent in applying the truths of scripture to their own lives
- Desire personal excellence as a visible result of honoring God in all they do
- Be known as models of tolerance in situations in which tolerance pleases God
- Model godly family living
- Face their own blind spots
- Decide to be content with what cannot be changed
- Develop consistency and skill in their work
- Respond to conflict with truth, righteousness and mercy
- Acquire the ability to persevere through hardship and failure
- Learn true forgiveness
- Grow in their ability to speak about their faith in ways which ring true with the unchurched and unbelieving people around them
- Discover joy in giving to others
- Commit themselves to basic spiritual disciplines
- Develop healthy eating and exercise routines
- Stop judging others’ motives
- Learn the difference between explicit biblical teachings and their own inferences based on certain verses of scripture
- Become amazed at God’s care and provision in their lives
- Find God to be the beauty and acceptance they have been looking for
- Find God to be tougher and smarter than themselves
- Desire to become more than they have dreamed possible for God’s glory
- Find deep enjoyment in the life God has blessed them with
- At all times show themselves as models of the grace of God
I could add many more requests, which seem biblically true and yet relevant to the society we are currently living in. It could be that if we consistently prayed for ourselves and others like this, we might indeed turn the world upside down!
I have it on good authority that it is more fulfilling to give a gift than it is to receive one. Do you believe that this is true? According to Jesus it is. He is recorded as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).” So why is it that many of us find it difficult to give at times, especially when that giving is in the form of offerings given to religious organizations?
According to some data I saw recently, giving among American church attenders has declined steadily over the past several decades from 4.5 percent to around 2.5 percent. During the same period, income has actually risen a bit. This leads to the question, why is it so difficult to give? Though there may be several factors at work, there is a fairly easy one which can be taken care of immediately: ignorance of what the Bible says on the subject. Here is a brief summary.
Giving is a vital act of worship. As far back as Genesis 14 (that’s around 2000 BC) the giving of a tithe (10%) was seen as an act of worship. Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel (Isaac, Jacob, etc.) gave a tithe of their income to the Lord as a sign of their gratitude and devotion. Likewise today, when we give money for God’s glory we are saying, “Thank you for your many blessings in my life. All I have comes from you, Lord, and I am giving you back a token of what is really yours anyway.”
Giving is something required of God’s people. For one thing, it was commanded in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 27:30, Numbers 18:21, etc). In reality, the Law given through Moses mandated that Israel give much more than ten percent annually. The first tithe was to be given each year to the Levites, whose job it was to instruct Israel in the Law and lead its worship. A second tithe was to be set aside by each family to provide the resources necessary for them to attend the religious festivals which God appointed for them. A third tithe was collected every three years to care for the poor. So, according to my calculations, this amounts to 23 1/3 percent each year to be set aside for the Lord’s use.
In the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus affirmed that people should uphold these laws about giving. You may recall the story in Luke 21:1-3 in which Jesus commended the poor widow for her sacrificial obedience in giving. Likewise, the New Testament church was urged to give sacrificially to the Lord’s work and to the needs of those around them (1 Corinthians 9: 3-12; 2 Corinthians 8:1-13).
Giving is God’s way of helping us to love him more. In Matthew 6:21, Jesus taught that wherever we put our treasure is where our hearts will be. If we place primary value on material things, our hearts will inevitable follow. If on the other hand, we place the highest value on God’s glory and invest in that, then our dearest love will be found in those things as well. I have sometimes heard people complain of being spiritually dry and unresponsive. There may be many reasons for a situation like this, but according to Jesus, one of them is that a person may have no spiritual passion because they have given nothing for God’s sake. Giving with an attitude of faith can rekindle spiritual passion.
Not only does the Bible tell us what giving is all about, it tells us how to give as well. For instance, God’s people are to give sacrificially (1 Chronicles 21:24), quietly (Matthew 6:3-4), regularly (1 Corinthians 16:2), purposefully and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Some might argue that all of this was given to people hundreds of years ago in cultures much different from our own. Let me see if I can apply these truths about giving to our current situation.
- Include regular giving in your family budget. If ancient farmers, merchants and livestock owners could set aside resources for God’s use, so can those of us who live and work in the Twenty-first Century. You will never give significantly if you don’t plan to do so. Add this as an item in your family’s spending plan and patterns. Make it a matter for prayer. Don’t forget to teach this to your children as you train them in financial matters.
- Use the ten percent as a general guideline. The New Testament makes it clear that believers in Jesus are not under the regulations of the Law of Moses, but under a new law of grace. This however does not mean that we are not expected to give substantially. Certainly giving 10% of income marks the lower limits of what most people would call substantial giving. Begin where you can. Perhaps if you were to begin with the current average of around 3 percent, you could make it a goal to work toward 5 percent within a few months and then to match the 10% tithe within a year to eighteen months. Just begin somewhere and aim high.
- Though some say they cannot afford to give, the truth is that we can’t afford not to. I have personally travelled to some of the poorest countries in the world over the past decade of my life. As an American, it has surprised and humbled me that people whose earnings are in no way comparable to my own modest income often give regularly to support God’s work. They do this, not only for that which is going on among them, but for the advancement of the Kingdom in places very far removed from their own countries. Seeing this has caused me to rethink this objection quite radically. All of us have something to give—if not money, then other resources or services we possess.
- What types of things and organizations should we give to? For Christians, the vast majority of ministry takes place through bodies of believers known as local churches. Therefore, it would seem right that a high percentage of our giving would be channeled to and through the churches of which we are a part. Ministry costs money, and though most local churches are extremely frugal, there is still a bottom line. Such basic ministry budgets deserve to be funded, especially when those budgets have been drawn up with due representation from the people and placed before the congregation for approval. There are also ample opportunities for special offerings and ongoing projects outside the local church. All such appeals should be personally screened for integrity, efficiency and long-term gospel effectiveness.
- The Bible is very clear that God’s people remember the legitimate needs of the poor (Galatians 2:10). This can take the form of contributing to a local church benevolence fund or to organizations which specialize in helping people not only survive, but become contributing members of society as their circumstances allow. You may want to also consider helping people personally in some thoughtful, tactful and respectful manner.
- Finally, we each ought to maintain the discipline of giving as an ongoing expression of love for God and gratitude for his care for us. In other words, giving should be a deliberate and cultivated habit. It should be something we come to be known for as individuals and as those who carry the name of Christian.
Well, there you have it: a basic overview of what the Bible says about giving. It really isn’t very complicated. If you love God, you will give back to him some of what you have been given, so that the things which matter to him can take place. So now that you know what the Bible teaches, the real issue is how your giving will change and what you will do to make sure it does!
I Thought It Was All About Jesus
It has become my personal belief that there is something very wrong with aspects of Christianity these days. The problem, as I see it, goes beyond the periodic scandals involving unethical or immoral behavior by clergy or high profile Christians. The problem is deeper even than the fact that, in Western countries, Christianity is either plateaued or declining in numbers. It seems to me that we Western Christians are in danger of being like the man who attended the inauguration of one of the U.S. presidents: he enjoyed the band, the flags and the pomp and circumstance, but when asked afterward, he couldn’t remember who it had all been for. In a word, we are in danger of missing the point in all our Christian talk and activity.
In actual fact, the point is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one we are called to honor, trust and follow. He alone offers eternal life, cleansing from sin, inner peace and a life with purpose. Jesus is the crux and focal point of the Christian faith; it is absolutely meaningless without him. All our church attendance, preaching, Bible study, worship, missions and service activities are about Jesus. If we lose sight of this, these things are nothing.
Why do we sometimes miss the point? For one thing, we can easily overlook Jesus in all of our activities because the things we are doing are good and often successful. We are running programs which help people on one level or another. We enjoy the success which accompanies effective programs and we want that success to continue. Successful programs and ministries generate a certain excitement, which stimulates growth in numbers, finances and facilities. So it isn’t hard to see that what began as a genuine effort to serve Christ and minister to people, can become something with its own agenda and goals. Unchecked, these things can eventually take on a life of their own.
Another reason we may miss Christ in our Christianity is that we get stuck in the details of our faith. Let me be very careful how I say this so that I am not misunderstood. I have spent a good portion of my life either in receiving or imparting theological training. I believe strongly in being as precise and accurate in study and teaching of the Bible as I can possibly be. As I have served with various organizations over the years, I have put my signature at the bottom of some very evangelically orthodox statements of faith. So my credentials in the area of biblical knowledge and doctrine are solid. Yet I do believe that, at times, the details of our doctrine obscure what should be its focal point, namely Jesus and our faith in him.
Certainly we must accurately understand Jesus as the Bible reveals him. It is also true that other key doctrines play a huge role in the correct understanding of the Christian faith. But what is all that worth if we never get around to worshiping Jesus out of awe and gratitude for his sacrifice? What does all that precise doctrine amount to if we bludgeon one another over hairsplitting doctrinal or stylistic nuances? What does it mean if we do not bless people? Why would outsiders be impressed with our message when they see us stressing over things that ultimately accomplish nothing? I cannot help but be reminded of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in which Jesus condemns seemingly religious folks because they never fed the hungry or clothed the naked or visited the prisoners. Jesus’ point is that, in neglecting these people whom he died for, they revealed their true attitude of disdain for him.
A third reason we may miss Jesus in our practice of Christianity is because we assume that what we do is for our own benefit. A popular recent study program correctly reminded the church that its not really about us. How refreshing. If my Christianity is for my benefit alone, then I have indeed missed the point.
Now I am going to take a chance and say something else risky: In my observation, I see a very significant segment of the church practicing Christianity as a means of self-protection. Regardless of how some of us began our Christian faith, it has become a tool for keeping ourselves and those we care about safe from the outside world. We have come to believe that almost everything outside our own circles is, if not outright evil, at least gravely sinister.
Maybe it began as a genuine desire to remain true to our faith and uncorrupted by the world, but as time has gone by we have steadily built a fortress for ourselves. Stone by stone, gate by gate, bastion by bastion, we have worked to make our position impregnable. Ironically, the higher our walls and the more strongly our gates are defended, the less secure we have felt. Whatever happened to, “..go into all the world and make disciples..”? We have come a long way from our Lord who was often criticized for associating with the riffraff of his society and for being a drinker and a glutton because of his association with them. Truth is, many of us hardly know anyone outside our safe evangelical circles well enough to have any kind of a meaningful conversation.
Our Christianity will never be right until we snap out of the delusion that programs, success, doctrinal precision, or self-protection–valid as they may be–are in any sense the point. Only knowledge of and devotion to Christ himself makes any eternal difference. If I read the holy scriptures correctly, that is precisely their point.
How Convictions Affect Your Life-Outcomes
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Even though it has been many years since my high school graduation, I still remember certain things very clearly. I can recall how I felt: excited about the future, yet somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead. Like most young people, I was full of ideas about how to make my future a good one. My goals involved making and spending some money during the coming summer and then off to college in the fall. But at the time of my graduation, the future was still a big blank. Would I do well in college? Would I have to go to Viet Nam like some of my older friends? Would I be getting married? Would I like the job or career that I chose? Would I have any fun?
All members of graduating classes think similar kinds of things about the future. There is a generous mixture of excitement and sorrow; hope and fear. In pondering about life in general over the past few years, it seems to me that life tends to progress through three stages after high school is completed. At each stage, there are some perks and some uncertainties. How we do in each of the stages is directly influenced by what we fundamentally believe. As I see it, the three stages of adult life are as follows: 1) Getting Started; 2) Mid Life; and 3) The Downhill Slide. I offer the insights I have gained in the first two stages of my adult life as a gift to those just beginning the journey.
Before I outline the stages of adult life as I have observed them, I must explain what I mean by fundamental beliefs. At any point in life’s journey, we operate from the basis of certain rock-solid conclusions we have come to about the way reality is. Obviously, personality and early training will have already shaped those deeply-held convictions. Religious commitments will also have contributed to the formation of how you see the world.
But along with these shapers of a person’s world view, are certain key choices all of us have made as we have encountered the mixed experiences of our lives. For example, we have chosen to believe that the outlook for our lives is basically hopeful or basically dark; that people can be trusted (more or less) or that they probably cannot be. We have chosen to believe that there is a God who is good and caring and wise or that whatever beings or forces there may be are not particularly interested in our welfare. We have also chosen either to follow along with what we have been told by others about these matters, or to think for ourselves. All of this is what I mean by fundamental beliefs. These beliefs will act as a compass as we navigate the uncharted seas we must cross into the future.
Getting Started. Your fundamental beliefs determine how you will face the uncertainty and the challenges of beginning your adult life. In the first five-to-fifteen years you will begin a life that is very different from the one you have known in your teen years. Some will begin to pursue higher education. Others will enlist in the military. Still others will enter some sort of employment. For a significant percentage of high school graduates, marriage and family will accompany these things somewhere along the line. You will find yourself stretched and challenged on levels you may not even imagine at the moment.
Along with the thrill of these new experiences come certain questions: Who am I now? Can I survive the new set of expectations placed on me? How can I prepare myself to succeed? Am I enjoying life in this phase? Are my relationships working as I want them to? At the time, there are no answers to those questions: only time and the choices you make will provide them. What you profoundly believe about the nature of things will directly determine the choices you make and the manner in which you react to the circumstances you will face. Your fundamental beliefs will make all the difference between success and failure in how you start out. They will color the way in which you define success and failure.
The Mid Life. What you profoundly believe to be true will determine how you survive the inevitable disillusionments of middle life. After fifteen or twenty years, the bulk of the new beginnings will have been made. You will probably have completed your education. The aspect of marriage and family will have at least been attempted. Careers will be proceeding along their course. You may find that you are doing very well. But watch out for this: you will probably wake up one day to realize that you are forty years old (much to your dismay) and, amazed, you will ask yourself how this could have possibly happened.
Then life gets busy again and you find that you are approaching that huge milestone of your fiftieth year. It will seem impossible that so much time has passed. Somewhere in there, you may experience what has been called a mid-life crisis. Besides feeling the effects of getting older, certain questions you have not been willing to face now must be answered, such as: Have I spent the past couple of decades wisely? Am I making any significant impact on those around me? Have I been a contributor to the world or a merely taker of what the world has to offer? Have my choices made me happy? Can I afford to make a significant change at this point in my journey?
It may be that you will find yourself in a job or career that is very frustrating and you can’t see yourself going on with things as they are. Maybe your family life is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. You might experience health problems or the loss of someone very near and dear. You may have failed in some area of your life to which you have devoted much of your energy and ego. When things like this happen, many people ask, “Is this what life is all about? Is this what I must accept as the result of all my preparation, plans and effort.” The middle phase of your life allows you to truly experience life in its reality. It is also in this phase that you realize that some of your youthful dreams will never come to fruition.
The Downhill Slide. Again, what you believe will guide you through the your final years. OK, so you get through the midlife eventually, finishing your career and raising your family. The open road before you now is nearing its end. As you savor your accomplishments and rewards, you are beginning to evaluate your journey. Here is a typical scenario: For the most part, the younger generation will not bother to come to you for your advice or expertise. It is very likely that health problems will suddenly increase. More and more of your friends and loved ones will die, leaving you feeling very much alone. In some ways, the sadness you may have experienced periodically before this will become a much more prevalent theme.
As you realize these things, a new set of questions rises in your mind with some urgency: Have I spent my life well? Did I truly love anyone? Of the things I regret, are there ways I can still make some of them right? What comes next (if anything)? If you are a believer in God, you will also wonder whether he is pleased with you.
Obviously, what you firmly believe about the way life is, makes a huge difference in how you answer those questions. It can make the difference between an embittered old age, or finishing your productive years as a blessing to those around you. Your convictions can either take away the fear of death or leave you looking at the end of your life as just that—the end.
So, what are the options? In a society like ours, where we are free to choose, the options are many. I can’t begin to even mention them all, nor would I particularly want to. My own choices have included the decision to believe that God is good and that whatever has befallen me has been within his loving plan. That means that I believe my life has a purpose, which I may choose to fulfill or not. For me, it has meant that loving as God loves (expressed in Christ) is among the supreme virtues, that success in life is defined very differently from the definitions of others, and that I can have a sense of contentment not available to those whose beliefs may be different from mine.
Basic beliefs do matter. They make all the difference in how you face things; how you go about dealing with things. Beliefs make a difference in the goals you set and how you fulfill them. They make a difference in how you evaluate your life at the end. No one would expect an eighteen-year old to have a fully-formed set of convictions. The process of forming convictions may continue for some time into adulthood. Certainly your beliefs as a young adult will be sharpened and perhaps modified through the ups and downs of your future. But now is a good time to take stock of what you do believe, at least so far. There is always time to adjust, adapt and learn as time carries you forward. It is never too late to decide to trust a benevolent God, despite what the circumstances of your life may be saying at the moment.
My wish is that your life may be full of joy and goodness and love. I hope you have some fun along the way. I urge you to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Don’t forget your family and friends. The years will get away from you before you realize it, so at least settle your basic beliefs now. Yes, we can set goals and, to some degree, influence the course of our lives. But there is a side of life that cannot be planned or directed by anything we may choose. In some ways, life will just happen to each of us. When it does, the only choice that remains is how we will think about these circumstances and how we will behave as a result. In those times, what you deeply believe makes all the difference!
This essay was originally given as the speech at my eldest daughter Andrea’s baccalaureate service as a part of graduation week at Lemoore (California) High School, June, 1999.