Evangelism…Evangelism – go on, be honest, what’s your reaction? Now there may be some who are thinking ‘brilliant – I enjoy sharing my faith and I’d love to listen to a sermon all about it’. Great. I don’t know if we’re all like that though.
I’ll tell you what my first reaction was at the Churchwardens’ visitation when Bishop Lee stood up and said he was going to talk about evangelism. I thought ‘Oh no, even if he does this really well, which being Bishop Lee he did, I’m still going to end up feeling guilty.’ Actually, I didn’t end up feeling guilty, but I think I just expected to! So let me just get this clear at the beginning of this sermon series – I’m not speaking as an expert or enthusiast. Like many of us, I have some deeply mixed experiences of evangelism, which colour my view of it.
I think of the guy in Bristol who shouts at shoppers as they scurry past. I wince when I recall how the members of the university Christian Union were encouraged to knock on doors giving a loaf of bread as a pretext to invite new students to the CU – I never did work out how you were supposed to do that well. There is a sort of evangelism which is unhelpful. Bad evangelism makes a noise, goes in where there’s no pre-existing relationship, and so sees little success other than fulfilling a guilty Christian need to be doing something.
But it needn’t be like that. When I’ve worked through my initial reaction, I can think of examples of good evangelism. I can remember as a curate delivering copies of Luke’s gospel house to house in Stourbridge, and getting a sense as I delivered one that it really mattered, praying as I delivered it. The couple in that house rediscovered their faith. I remember a chap called Brian who hadn’t been to church in years until his daughter got married. Something was triggered inside him during the preparation – he came to a Foundations course and was confirmed.
So there is a good way of doing evangelism. Good natural evangelism which makes real relationships and builds on them, which shares the good news of Jesus with integrity – that kind of evangelism is a wonderful thing. It’s great to be part of it.
The mere fact that we’re here today proves that once upon a time, someone shared their faith with us. The fact this building stands shows that someone came to a tribe of Anglo-Saxons and talked about Jesus. Evangelism, or sharing our faith is the life-blood of the church.
And it is so natural for us to enthuse – about the beach we discovered on holiday, the restaurant you must go to. How many times have you seen teenagers or grown up men getting techi about what their phones can do? If you’re looking for a new car I’ll happily share my experiences of what’s worked for me. We naturally share good news.
I know the life of faith is so much more profound and personal. And yes, it is somewhat counter-cultural to talk about it. But I hope that as we go through this sermon series in June we will dispel some of the myths and become more confident and capable in sharing our faith.
In Acts Chapter 1 v8, as Jesus returns to heaven, he tells his disciples ‘You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.’ Here, Jesus commands them to join in his mission – and that’s really important. This is not something we do by ourselves, on our own initiative, in our own power. Properly understood, evangelism is part of joining in with God in his love for the world. Often we find he is already at work in people’s lives, and he calls us to build on it. Our prayer should be ‘Lord help me to join in with what you are doing’.
Now, If I’m looking to buy a new car – which I might well be given the bill for the last service – if I’m looking to buy a new car I do research online, I think about what I need, I look up prices and so on. All that though gets put to one side if I speak to someone who says ‘oh you don’t want to buy that, I had one of them, complete disaster’. On the other hand, if they say ‘Lovely car, good drive, very reliable’ it’s worth looking at. Personal experience counts for so much.
That is why the idea of witnesses is so important. In that verse from Acts 1 Chapter 8, Jesus says ‘You will be my witnesses’ The disciples will speak of what they have seen and heard – the miracles, the crucifixion, Easter. Their personal experience will carry weight, because they have been with Jesus.
The same is true for us. Each Christian has a story to tell. Why we are what we are. What difference faith makes. Perhaps there are particular times when God has been very close or carried you through hardship. Your own witness or testimony can be very powerful, often more so than words of explanation. So don’t undervalue your story, be confident in it, willing to share.
Most people who come to faith do so, not because of a Vicar or a missionary, but because of a friend. Stories like ‘I was a drug-addled murderer in a top security prison until I did Alpha’ are hugely inspiring but I guess unless your non-Christian friend is a drug-addled murder in a top security prison it doesn’t tell them what God can do in their life. Much more relevant is the day to day example of the friend or work colleague – people like us. Our experience counts for a lot.
So it’s worth spending some time thinking about your story and how you might tell it. You could use a before and after structure: Was there a time when you weren’t a Christian? How did you come to faith? What difference did it make? Or if you’ve been a Christian all your life maybe draw a life-story path with the big events on it – how was God involved at different points? The idea is that you don’t then regurgitate this story verbatim, but reflecting on it helps put your thoughts in order.
When Jesus tells his disciples to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ he’s setting up a chain of events which includes all Christians. The apostles told others, who told others, and so on all the way down to us. We don’t have to be an apostle, a vicar, a missionary or specially authorised to share our faith – we just have to be a follower of Christ.
It is a big task, and the reading also shows the resources that are available. In v. 8 Jesus says that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. As it is God’s mission that we’re joining in, God gives us the power we need. I usually find that God equips me as I set off to serve him. It’s not so much that I wait around until I feel ready and then I go and do something. If I do that, I never feel fully up to the task! Rather it’s as I go and step out in faith that the ability comes.
We may have all sorts of blockages, things which hold us back from the idea of evangelism. Someone might be thinking ‘it’s all very well sharing faith, but I’m not sure what my faith is. I wouldn’t know how to answer their questions.’ ‘Sharing faith is fine if you’re an extrovert with the gift of the gab – that’s not me’ or ‘what would people think of me if they knew I was a Christian?’
It’s fine to feel like that. Honesty is important – because if we’re not honest about where we are in all of this we can never make progress. But let’s not stay there. Acknowledging our reactions gives us a starting point from which we can explore and learn – we will address those issues over the course of this sermon series.
The other key resource is prayer. For ourselves and for others. In v.14 the Acts reading describes how the apostles return to Jerusalem where they spend their time in prayer in the upper room. In our gospel reading we heard Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – and much of the meaning of Ascension Day is that Jesus has returned to be with God, where he prays for us constantly. When we pray, we join our prayers with the perfect prayers of Jesus, which can give us confidence that they are heard. He will give us the abilities and opportunities that we need.
We talk about prayer a lot, but sometimes we need a little nudge to make it happen. So as we finish, I want to challenge you to identify someone you can pray for. Let’s be silent together and I’ll lead us in prayer. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to show each one of us someone that we can pray for – someone we want to hear the good news. In the silence, just be aware of anyone God brings to mind – it might be someone quite unexpected. And then in the coming week, pray for them. That they might hear about Christ, that God might give you opportunities gently to share your faith with them. Let’s see what God can do!
Father, we thank you for the good news of Christ. Thank you that when you call us you equip us. Fill us with your Holy Spirit now and give us courage to step out in faith. In this silence we ask you to lay on our hearts someone you would like us to pray for – Lord we are open to you