I began 2008 with this sermon. Now in 2012, we again start the year emphasizing evangelism.
I was raised by parents who read the Bible and taught my brother, sister, and I to read it and apply what we read to our lives. Today, my Dad is a Sunday school teacher. My mom continues what she has done all of her life. She’s up early, reading the Bible, writing down her prayers, and recording the ways God has answered her prayers.
I was raised in the church. We were American Baptists when we lived in Michigan and Southern Baptists when we lived in Virginia. We also had several ties to the Methodist church. I have been exposed to numerous youth group type teaching settings. In many and diverse ways I have heard the Gospel story.
One of the foundations of my education in the church has been evangelism. I can remember at least as far back as middle school that a core component to learning the Christian faith was sharing the Christian faith. To be true to Jesus, I have always thought it was necessary to tell others about Jesus. But, I have not always been comfortable as to how one is to do this.
I guess my earliest idea of evangelism is that you walk up to people and start talking about what it means to be saved. If you’re in high school, you approach people in the hallway or on the bus or after a practice and talk about Jesus. I thought, “That’s evangelism.” Some how it didn’t occur to me to talk to people I knew. It was like I was supposed to evangelize strangers. As active as I was in church, and we were always doing something at church, my best friends weren’t involved. Once or twice I dragged them along when the youth group went to an amusement park, but it never went deeper than that.
I divided my life into quadrants. In one section was my personal life. There, I did my thing. I did what I wanted to do. Then there was church and Jesus. There, I tried to be obedient. I knew evangelism was supposed to be a key part of my life, but my concept of it didn’t feel natural. It felt weird to go up to strangers and break into the “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go” conversations. So, I didn’t do it. I just hung out with Christian friends at church and my closest friends at other times.
Once, our church had visitation. There were probably 50 or so kids on our “prospect” list and the kids in the youth group were supposed to visit them and invite them to church. My brother Matt and I, in a youth group of 30 kids, were the only ones to sign up. We made one visit to a really popular kid. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know him. I just knew he was a whole lot cooler than me. When I went to church, he went to parties. So, we rang the doorbell, and he let us in and we had a great conversation. He was happy that we came. He was happy to talk to us and hear from us. It was a positive experience.
The problem is we didn’t follow up after that. The may have kid showed up at church a few times, but he never got involved. And that was the only visit Matt and I made. Why? Our only concept of evangelism was knocking on the doors of strangers. That is a strategy for sharing the message of Jesus. Going door to door is one way to tell others about him; so too is approaching strangers at the food court in the mall. There are probably some people for whom this method is extremely effective. It was not for me. I tried it once and the guy was receptive, but I didn’t follow up.
My senior year, I did express my faith in Christ through my own life style. In the locker room a bunch of football players were bragging about their sexual exploits. Somebody said, “Hey Tennant, we haven’t heard from you.” I responded that my faith in Christ dictated how I thought, spoke, and acted regarding sexuality. The guys respected my position probably because we had played football together for four years. But again, my stance, while a good demonstration of how a Christian ought to live, did not generate any discussions about Jesus. To a degree I couldn’t control that. I could not make these guys want to know more about the Lord. But, I didn’t even try. I did not attempt to get my teammates to talk about following Christ instead of the usually bravado-laden locker room talk. For me evangelism was an idea; it was an idea that didn’t take form in my daily life.
Through the years following high school, into college, into seminary, and then into ministry, I have witnessed to many people. I had a roommate once, who was exploring Christianity. I never initiated our talks about Jesus, he did. He kept seeking until one year on Easter Sunday; he gave his heart to Christ. After high school, I finally felt an impulse to approach my best friend. I sat him down and we went through a basic gospel tract. He listened and acted interested. But today, we still don’t talk of the things of faith. I love him. But most of the time, we just talk about the NFL.
I have sent emails and letters to friends and family members telling them that they need Jesus more than a nice house, a good job, or a fun vacation. Those conversations for the most part haven’t gone anywhere. There are definite exceptions. With one person, the first time we met, she refused to even join me in prayer for the meal. She wasn’t indifferent to the Gospel. She was opposed to it. I spent a lot of time praying for her. Now, years later, she openly talks of faith. She prays. And she regularly attends church. I have definitely been a party to some real success stories.
I have also though had the door figuratively slammed in my face. One friend was explaining why he felt an alternative life style was what he needed. He spoke of his pain and the ache in his soul. He said coming out of the closet would ease his burden and free him. I listened for a while and then blurted, “All the things you say you need I find in Jesus.” He said, “I am glad that works for you.” His tone and his expression told me the issue was closed.
I share all of this with you because I am committed to leading our church in an intense, concentrated push for evangelism in 2008. Our church is to be missional. We are to be evangelical. We are to be about the business of leading people in discipleship. Our presence should make a profound difference in this community. Our presence should mean that Jesus is here doing things that help people.
I don’t say this because it is the beginning of a new year. I hope these themes have been a part of my preaching all along. I don’t say this because it is a particular weakness of HillSong Church, or evangelism is especially needed here. I don’t think Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina are more hopelessly lost than other places. There are Christians in this town and on the campus. There are many more that do not follow Jesus. The New Year is a good time to reiterate our purpose; and, it is the right time to set our direction. Our small groups, our worship and preaching, our communications through the website and the newsletter, and most importantly our people in the public eye are to be evangelical, missional, and example of what a disciple looks like.
As we go, I hope it will become clear that those terms are not three distinct categories. They are interrelated and they are informed by the passage we have read this morning. Our basis for being evangelical, missional disciple makers is Jesus and the message he gave at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. This passage is our defining word.
For me to say that, I felt I had to tell you where I have been in my life regarding this issue. In my last church, I told the people that evangelism was not one of my spiritual gifts. It’s one of the poorer decisions I have made. I never should have said that. In saying it, I was excusing myself from the work evangelism. I was the pastor, so if I excused myself, I also excused the people. It was a dreadfully bad thing to say, and I guess I’ve spent the last 3 years or so repenting.
Matthew 28:16-20, the verses we refer to as the Great Commission, are Biblical evidence that Jesus expects all who would claim the salvation he offers to be about the work of evangelism. Spiritual gifts build up the body that is, the church. An individual serves best in areas where he or she is gifted and in ways where he or she is gifted. But all of us are called to discipleship. All of us are called to tell the good news. All of us are called to reach out to lost people. All of us are called to missions.
In an article for Outreach magazine, Thom Rainer writes of his research. He studied 449 churches. 18% of those he studied were growing, but they were growing at a rate that was less than the community around them. So, yes, their numbers were increasing, but so were the numbers of nonbelievers in the community. 6% were actually growing at a rate faster than the community. And a whopping 76% of the churches he studied were in decline.
Rainer and his poured over the data, and they found one striking factor that distinguished the growing churches. There was one survey question the growing churches answered differently. The question was directed at the pastor of the church. The question was “in the past six months, how many times have you shared the Gospel or developed a relationship with an unchurched person with the intention of sharing your faith?”
The more than ½ of the pastors in the churches that were in decline did not engage in personal evangelism at all. 75% of the pastors of the growing churches were involved in personal evangelism relationships at least 6 times. I was not a part of Rainer’s survey. If I had been, I’d fall short of the mark of the pastors of growing churches. In the past 6 months, I have been a part of 3 intentional personal evangelism efforts.
What does this say? As the pastor of HillSong Church, I have to step it up. Regardless of Thom Rainer’s research or my results on a spiritual gifts inventory, I have to get myself in gear in the work of personal evangelism in my day-to-day life. I have to get to it. As the pastor, I am pointing the arrow at me. I have to do better.
The great thing is you don’t have to wait on me. In fact, there is a precedent of emboldened lay leadership here. From the end of Jack Mercer’s tenure through the tremendously beneficial days of Bob Patterson’s interim pastorate through the summer of Phil Partin’s preaching leading up to my arrival, God has raised wonderful lay leadership at HillSong Church. The gifting, the initiative, and the sense of mission among our leaders is inspiring. God has been laying the groundwork for an evangelistic explosion here for a long time. He has God-sized vision for us and you realize that.
The ultimate goal of this morning’s message is not for the worshipping community to walk out of church muttering “Our young pastor better get cracking.” I have put myself on the line because it is time for my, in my own journey, to commit to evangelism like I never have before. It is time for me to rethink how I live so that the things of the Kingdom have top priority in all areas of my life. That’s my work. The elders, my prayer partners, my wife, and others in the church will hold me accountable.
Your work and indeed the work each of us has before us is to read Matthew 28:16-20 and then to live it out. This word isn’t for the 11 who followed Jesus or for the early church. This is for all believers of all times in history. Ask yourself the question that was in Thom Rainer’s survey. “In the past six months, how many times have you shared the Gospel or developed a relationship with an unchurched person with the intention of sharing your faith?” Ask that of yourself. But don’t let the answer determine the state of your own spiritual health.
If you would answer by saying, “I have shared Christ with 25 people and 19 of them have become believers over the past half year,” don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. If your answer is “I haven’t shared Jesus with anyone,” don’t hang your head and fall into a spiritual depression. Don’t think you’re a failure as a disciple. Let however you answer the question be a lesson from God. Learn from the past six months and the past six years.
I recounted for you my own history with evangelism and in thinking it through, I’ve learned a lot about myself. While I should be ready to talk about Jesus in impromptu moments with strangers, it’s not what I do best. I need to equip myself if these moments come. But, I also need to think about people I already know. I have personal relationships with nonbelievers. I have the opportunity to develop friendships with nonbelievers. I have got to invest myself in prayer for folks in my world who do not follow Jesus. I have to pray for Him to show me how to open the door to conversation. I have to make it my goal to talk in welcoming, loving way to my unsaved friends about the gospel.
This leads me right into what should be the more important question for you to wrestle with over the course of the next seven days and throughout 2008. We ask ourselves, “How many times have I shared the Gospel or developed a relationship with an unchurched person with the intention of sharing my faith in the past?” We ask that for the sake of learning. How we answer shows what we have done to this point. But where do we go from here. This is the issue of today. The more question is “In the next six months with whom will I share Jesus? Who will I be praying for? Who I will reach out to? Who will I intentionally befriend? What is my personal evangelism strategy for the next six months?
That’s our assignment for the week. Write it down. Spend time this week prayerfully thinking about how Jesus will speak through your life in 2008. Begin writing your own personal evangelism strategy. Next week we will go deeper into how this is to be done.
Michael Wilkens, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes that the Great Commission includes one dominant verb, and three supporting verbs. The dominant verb is the instruction Jesus give to “make disciples.” Go and make disciples. So, when we think about our own personal evangelism strategy, we need to think in terms of discipleship. “Make disciples” Jesus tells us. That’s grammatically the dominant command.
The three support verbs are “Go,” “Baptizing,” and “Teaching.” We have to go to our neighborhoods, and to the far reaches of the world. We have to baptize. And we have to teach. All of this is done as a part of us answering the call to make disciples.
Next week, we will look at the implications of the great commission. We’ll set the context. We’ll go verse by verse, word by word. We’ll see what Jesus is saying to us. The following week, January 20, we’ll look closer at the meaning of discipleship. Included in that talk will be some very informative and helpful insights from Dallas Willard, a professor of Philosophy at Southern Cal who has written extensively on how one lives as a disciple of Jesus in daily life.
Between now and when we come together again, spend some time on your assignment. In your journal, if you journal, or just a sheet of paper you keep in your Bible or your calendar, write down this question. What is my personal evangelism strategy for 2008? And begin writing down an answer.
Jesus is God in human flesh and he came that all people might know him, believe in Him, and receive forgiveness of sins from Him. He came to rescue us all from sin and to call us to the Kingdom of Heaven. He came that we might be saved. We know that and we rejoice in it. He smiles at the worship we offer. He invites us into His joy. And He sends us out to do His work. When we receive the gift of eternal life from Him, He expects to the spread the Good News of salvation to those who have not heard and have not yet come to Him in faith. Let’s dedicate ourselves to living up to His expectations.AME
 I mowed my neighbors’ lawn as an attempt at servant evangelism; I prayed for Kate Gotelli’s brother and attempted to intiate spiritual conversations with her; and, we had several neighbors over as an attempt at relationship building.
 Wilkens, The NIV Application Series: Matthew, p.951.
 Note that this message, leaning on Willard and especially his words regarding daily discipleship and the practice of it in one’s vocation will coincide with our commissioning of Maria.