Why Do Evangelism?
I mean anything: your car keys, your wallet, your glasses when they’re perched on your head (or on your nose)…What does it feel like in that moment when you realize you don’t know where you put that thing that you so desperately need?
If this resonates with you, then there’s a product especially designed for you! It’s called the Key Ringer. Maybe you’ve seen something like it in the in-flight magazine? You can attach them to your key ring, your remote control, your pets (I suppose). And if you can’t find one of them, you just push the correct button on the Key Ringer and it beeps for you. But what happens, I wonder, if you can’t find the Key Ringer? Do you put a Key Ringer on that?
When Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago, we had a similar problem, but on a larger scale. We would lose our car. It’s not as absurd as it sounds. We lived in a third floor apartment of a building that didn’t have its own parking. And so we would be forced to find street-side parking. We had very little control over where that would be. Sometimes we could put the car right in front of the building; other times, we would be three to four blocks away. And it was a challenge to remember where we had parked, especially if the other one had driven the car last. So we came up with a solution: we made a simple map of a five block radius and put it by the front door. Whenever we got home, we would erase the last “x” and put a new one marking where the car was.
The system was genius in its simplicity. And it worked pretty well, most of the time. But just like with the Key Ringer, there was one flaw in the plan: we had to remember to put the “x” in the right spot. Good times.
There’s nothing quite like that feeling of losing something. And that’s probably where most of us connect with the two parables in Luke. And no matter how small that thing might be in the grand scheme of things, we can easily lose perspective and go a little nuts trying to find it. You know what they say, it’s always in the last place you look! Do you know why that’s true? Because there’s no need to look after you’ve found it!
The implication of these parables, however, is a little broader than dealing with things we might lose around the house. What is intended, of course, is an understanding of what God desires for the world: that no one is too small or insignificant, and that every effort should be made in finding them.
Which brings us to our theme above. We’re spending this week and next answering two very different questions. This week, the question is, “Why do evangelism?” It’s straight out of the Unbinding the Heart book study that we’re doing as a congregation. And next week, we’ll be looking at its flipside: “Why not do evangelism?”
If we’re honest, the second question is much easier for most of us to answer. It’s clear that the word “evangelism” has developed a bad reputation that seems almost irreparable. It has become equated with a certain worldview or political agenda or an approach that is usually pushy or arrogant. We run into examples everywhere. Perhaps you were like me this past week and thought about this as that pastor down in Florida took center stage with his little stunt. “That’s not Christianity,” we say reflexively. But do we really know what to do about it? And does anyone really believe us if we say it out loud? The counter examples, from churches large and small, from Christians on the fringe and in the mainstream, are simply overwhelming.
It’s like being in this incredibly large dysfunctional family. We may disapprove when that distant cousin falls in the punch bowl at the family reunion; unfortunately for us, we’re still related.
So what about this first question? Why should we do evangelism? Perhaps the answer is related to this negative image that Christianity has cultivated over the centuries. When we are wringing our hands and wondering what we can do in the face of the absurdity of national and international headlines, maybe it is evangelism, literally the sharing of “good news”, that offers something we can actually do.
We Presbyterians have our own problems with evangelism. We simply don’t have the practice. Take the Presbyterian Hymnal, for example. In the back, there are all these cool reference sections. Under the topical reference, there's no mention of “evangelism” at all. No wonder we run screaming from the “e-word”. Not only do we not know how to talk about it; we don’t even know how to sing about it.
It reminds me of the church that had just re-organized and, for the first time ever, had an evangelism committee. No one was willing to volunteer as chair, so they drew straws and one poor fellow got the short one. He was very nervous, especially at the prospect of a new strategy they were going to try in their community, which was making door-to-door visits in the neighborhood. His pastor, trying to comfort him, said, “If you spend a few moments in prayer before you knock on the door, that will certainly help.”
The next month, the committee met. And the chair came up to the pastor and said, “Thanks so much for your advice! It worked like a charm!”
The pastor was thrilled. And as the meeting began, the pastor asked the chair to share this good news with everyone else there, so they might hear a living example of how prayer changes lives. “Well,” he replied, “Prayer works! Every house I came to, I prayed that the people wouldn’t be home, and they weren’t!”
There are those people who have a gift for talking to complete strangers about faith. My hunch is that there are not many of them reading this right now.
So let’s turn back to this lesson of the lost coin and the lost sheep. If we approach these two parables with that question “Why do evangelism”, the answer is pretty straightforward: “We do evangelism because Jesus tells us to do it.” Great. Easy enough, right? Should we proceed to the benediction? Or are we waiting for the hymnal to catch up with Jesus first, and then we’ll follow suite?
The truth is that, if this is the question we take to the parables, we get the answer that reinforces what we already think in the first place. The shepherd abandons the ninety-nine sheep to find this one wanderer; the woman manically searches all night long for a coin that she misplaced in the first place. If this question becomes our approach to the parable, then our interpretation ends up with some version of this: we’re the shepherd, or the woman, and our job is to go and find those figurative lost sheep and coins and make sure they know about Jesus, the true shepherd.
Do you want to know how to make somebody mad? Just tell them that you think they’re “lost” and that you’re there to help them get found.
It’s worth remembering at this point this one simple thought: evangelism begins with relationship. The coin belonged to the woman; she wasn’t trying to find someone else’s money. The same thing with the sheep. The shepherd went looking for his own; it was his, one that recognized the sound of his voice. And the third parable in this series, the one that follows these two, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which begins, “There was a man who had two sons”; not two people he didn’t know. There are no complete strangers here. There is relationship long before there is any talk of being lost or found.
Faithful evangelism must begin with relationship; otherwise it’s rooted in the wrong thing. Ultimately, we have no control over someone else’s faith. What we can control is the reason we are in a relationship with this person in the first place.
Do we love and respect them, even if they have a sense of purpose and meaning that is very different from our own?
Where much evangelism falls short is when the relationship exists solely for the purpose of putting another check in the box, our box, because someone has made their commitment to Jesus. If that’s the reason for the relationship, then if we can’t persuade them that they are lost, the relationship comes to an end. And that’s not relationship as God intended. Our relationships with one another ought to mirror God’s relationship with us.
After all, these parables are images of the kingdom of God. They illustrate what the world would look like if it more resembled God’s desire for us. We’re not the shepherd; we’re the sheep. We may not like to admit it, but we’re the ones that lost track of time, ignored the shepherd’s voice, got distracted by a butterfly or the lure of a greener pasture, and wandered away. And God is the shepherd who came looking for us, found us, and carried us back home.
We’re not the woman; we’re the coin. We rolled under the table until we got stuck in a crack in the floorboards, and that seemed like a good enough place to be in the end. And God is the woman who stayed up all night until we were safely back in her care.
This is the take away from these parables. We have no right to tell anyone that they are lost unless we recognize that we, ourselves, are lost. And by virtue of being lost, we are living examples of God’s relentless pursuit: it is the same God in Jesus Christ that ate with sinners and challenged those of his time and those of us today and those who will come after us to do the same.
We can see that relentless pursuit in our the reading from 1st Timothy as well. As the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, he was about as lost as one can be: a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. He was there and essentially licensed the murder of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And it was for this very reason, not in spite of it, that Paul knows the healing power of mercy.
Paul knows what it means to be found, because he recognizes before all else that he was deeply, deeply lost. And he is willing to literally give his life so that others, too, may recognize that God is pursuing them relentlessly and that this same grace of being found is theirs as well.
There are those of you reading this that resonate with Paul’s story very well. We are lost; or we know that we once were and easily can be again. Addiction has taken hold; our priorities are out of whack; we have passion, but we know that it’s for the things that do not make glad the heart of God. If so, then my hope is that this community might be a place to be found. There is much more conversation to have; and this might be the first step. If you want to talk, you can always contact me.
There are also those of you reading this who bristle at the very suggestion that our lives might look anything like Paul’s. We think we’re doing a pretty good job. And any implication that we were, or are, lost is nothing short of an insult. If so, then there is the distinct possibility that we might be more lost than we are able to recognize.
But as an exercise, let’s change the question for a moment, just get that negative “e-word” out of it. Let’s try this on for size: Can you think of a time in your life when your faith has made a difference? Was there a time of loss or transition, of deep grief or celebration, a moment of question or doubt or uncertainty, a time that faith became real for the first time, or real again but in a totally different way? These are the moments that faith finds us; and so often we have no idea that we were even lost to begin with. And if faith remains unreal to us, if it sounds like a “good idea in theory” with no practical reality for us, then we are really more lost than we might think we are.
The truth is that the world is full of lost people who have no clue that they are lost. Our lives and relationships are full of people who are lost and don’t even know it. And we care about these people not because we have something that they don’t, but because we ourselves continue to get lost again and again and again, like Paul, and know that God comes to our rescue again and again and again.
So why do evangelism? We do evangelism because we have been pursued and found, and it has made all the difference in our lives. And we cannot help but tell that story with all whom we love: not in a way that judges, or excludes, or offers advice from “on high”, but as the story of fellow strugglers who still don’t have it figured out but have the guts to admit it.
Evangelism is not an intellectual exercise in apologetics or debate or argument. Instead, it’s the journey of the shepherd that is willing to walk in the footsteps of the ones who go astray, to see what they see, to know what they know, and yet to have the wisdom to recognize that it is God who pursues and finds us.
This is the good news we share! Amen.