September 13th, 2015

The church is always one generation away from extinction.

Romans 15:14-22

One generation from extinction

People have asked me recently if I’m losing weight. The answer is yes, but I’m losing weight that has been “lost and found.” I have a perpetual ambition never to return to the 255 pounds I weighed 15 years ago. Do you have any perpetual ambitions?

Another lifelong passion is to do my part to leave one local church at a time, and the Church, in better shape than I found it. The only priorities that matter more than that perpetual ambition are my own relationship to God, to my wife, and to my children.

Leaving Corinth Reformed Church in better shape than I found it doesn’t necessarily imply leaving it bigger, but leaving it stronger, healthier, more likely to extend its impact to another generation. I hope to do the same for the Church universal – to do my small part to leave a legacy that impacts other churches in Hickory, in the United Church of Christ, and wherever else God allows our influence to reach.

If I/we are going to have that kind of impact, our sense of mission cannot be confined to what happens among people who are already here. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, grabbed headlines in 2013 when he said that Christianity in England is “one generation away from extinction.” Every local church, as well as the Church in every era and place, is always one generation away from extinction.

If we don’t pass on our faith to the next generation – be they our children or others – we die. Period. That’s the necessity of evangelism.

I’m curious: for how many of you does the word “Evangelism” have positive connotations? For how many does it produce negative associations? Today we examine our fourth Core(inth) Value: Evangelism. Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at Discipleship, Scripture, and Worship.

Why Paul mattered

Nobody in the first century of whom we have a record accomplished more to leave the church in better shape than he found it than the Apostle Paul. You might be able to make the same statement about all of church history, not just the first century.

Why did Paul have such an impact? To answer that question, we turn to Romans 15:14-22, where Paul identifies eight factors critical to our practice of evangelism.

  1. High on the church. Paul spoke positively to and about the church whenever possible. Paul writes in verse 14, “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” Over and over again in his letters, even in churches that were a mess like the church at Corinth, Paul calls them “saints” and finds ways to commend them.

Does how you speak about the church cause others to want to be a part of it?

  1. Bold confrontation. Verse 15 continues, “Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again….” To be “high on the church” doesn’t mean that churches and Christians are flawless. Quite the opposite; it means we learn a different way to relate to fellow sinners than exclusion and judgmentalism. Paul has addressed difficult subjects in Romans 12-15, but he’s done so with respect and love.

Are you willing to confront and be confronted so the church can grow together?

  1. Duty of proclaiming. Paul uses some important words in verses 15b-16: “…because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). In addition to Paul’s mention of all three persons of the Trinity, consider one phrase: “priestly duty.” It’s a single compound word in Greek which literally means, “temple work.” The priests in the Jewish temple (or other religious temples of the day) rotated shifts, considering it both a duty and joy. Paul says proclaiming this gospel of Jesus is like that for him – he’s “always on duty” because this message is a joy to proclaim.

Is the message of Christ to you like optional dessert or the essential water of life?

  1. The power of God. Paul deflected credit in vv. 17-19 from himself to God for the success of his work. “I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God.” “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done.” “…by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.” If you live in constant guilt over what you’ve not done, or pride over what you have, you think it’s your job. You have a role, because Paul refers to “what I have said and done,” but only God’s power can transform.

Are you willing to do your part while leaving the work of conversion to God?

  1. Legacy journal. Verse 19b continues, “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” Each of Paul’s missionary journeys took him further and further from the home church in Jerusalem. The book of Acts never mentions Illyricum, a province to the north and west of Greece, but in Romans learn that Paul had at least been to the border. He wants to go even further, to Rome and Spain (23-24). The point is that Paul remembered and reported where he had been.

Do you live in shame because you remember the omissions failures of evangelism, or do you choose grace by recalling those you have invited to Christ and mentored?

  1. Perpetual ambition. Verse 20 was the inspiration for the sermon title: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Ambition can be negative or positive. If it’s the passion to be honored or recognized, that’s negative. I think what Paul means here is the love of what is honorable. Had Paul stayed in one place for thirty years (and this is God’s calling to some, like me!) he would not have had the impact he did. Paul’s ambition was to keep finding people who had never heard of Jesus.

Is one of your perpetual ambitions that the Lord will direct you to those who do not know Christ?

  1. Foundation. We said a couple of weeks ago that Scripture is and must be the solid ground on which we build the church. In verse 21, Paul connects his passion for the unreached to a text in Isaiah, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”

Do you regularly let the Bible alter your priorities?

  1. In verse 22, Paul says, “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.” Rome was one of the places where someone else (probably Mark and Peter and others as well) had already spread the message of Christ. It was not a priority for Paul except as a launching pad to move on to Spain and Europe (23-24). There were many times however, when Paul was redirected – even when he did intend to find unreached people. But Paul saw setbacks as God’s Spirit acting like a GPS: “recalculating.”

When a door is shut, do you give up or look around for a door God has opened?

Outward focused

Especially for the sake of those for whom “Evangelism” has a negative connotation, let me define the word for you. The Greek word was used of what we call “Breaking News” – only not news of a terrorist attack or impending thunderstorm. This is more along the lines of “Breaking News: Kelvin Benjamin is OK after all!” or “Breaking News: Hot Fudge Sundaes Make You Thinner, Healthier.” It’s good news that’s breaking.

In the Pastor’s Class at Corinth I define the church as “a community Christ calls.” Evangelism is inviting others into the community Christ calls. It’s sharing the good news that Jesus makes it possible to be in relationship with God and with others because he loved us unconditionally when we were far from him, loved us to the point of dying for our sins. Then he rose to destroy the power of death and guilt and doubt and shame.

So what is our role in evangelism? As you can imagine, entire books and training sessions and manuals and sermons have been written on this subject. What can I add? Maybe nothing new, but I want to suggest four areas for practical application.

First, prayer. A new Christian film is “now playing” in theaters. The producers really don’t intend for this to be an evangelistic film. I don’t think I would recommend it to non-Christian people I’m praying for.

“War Room” is designed to encourage Christians. The Charlotte Observer ran a nice piece on it last week, and I was surprised to learn it was filmed in Charlotte.

The lead character in War Room, Miss Clara, is played by Mooresville actress Karen Abercrombie, and she’s believable and passionate. She made me laugh and made me cry. Even though the film is fairly simplistic in its portrayal of something as complex as a broken marriage, its key point is right on target. Miss Clara believes the primary place to fight life’s battles is the “War Room,” her name for her prayer closet.

Prayer is how we trust God to change people. Join us at lunch today as we explore that theme in the first of a series of lunches sponsored by the Board of Evangelism. I’m going to share with you a lesson my son taught me about prayer even though many years ago he pulled away from God and the church.

Second, personal life and witness. Often when we think of evangelism, we think of this response. Evangelism is “personal,” some insist, and I can’t argue with that point. It’s readiness to share the good news of Jesus with them, which means I need to be able to share the Gospel. But how I interact with people who need the Lord, how they see me behave at work or at play, what I do with my time and money – all of that is evangelism. The monthly Evangelism lunches ahead will also continue to train us about personal evangelism, so my only point for now is to attend these lunches all year long.

Third, missions. Since I’m speaking of one of our Core(inth) Values, I want to be sure I stress that when I speak of Evangelism, I don’t just mean what happens here in Hickory. We partner all over the world to strengthen the church and proclaim the gospel. Just this past week our Board of Missions designated $3,000 to partner with Dr. Salem and Farida Barghout and his church as they minister to Syrian refugees and to orphans in South Sudan, two hot button areas of religious persecution and humanitarian need.

Speaking of those refugees, I was saddened this week to hear that one European nation will only accept Christian refugees, and I’m disappointed the United States has been reluctant and slow. Here’s an opportunity for people we pray for to come to us! I would love for the church at large all over the world to look at this is an unparalleled opportunity to show and share the love of Christ.

Fourth, church meetings. My sermon today took a sharp turn Monday morning. While out for a 3-mile Labor Day morning walk since my exercise group took the morning off, I listened to a lecture by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Christianity Today called Redeemer one of Manhattan’s most vital congregations. 5,000 people worship weekly in a church founded only 25 years ago.

Much of that success is due to Tim Keller, and I wanted to listen to one of his sermons on evangelism at the beginning of this week. What I found was not a sermon but a lecture he gave to a group of pastors in Scotland about how the church can be “outward facing and outward focused.” To my surprise, he focused on church meetings as the number one priority for evangelism. He wasn’t talking about altar calls or revivals or thundering sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” He didn’t disparage methods earlier generations used for evangelism, but he did say we need fresh strategies for people today who struggle with doubt more than guilt.

Keller noted that in 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church that some activities in their church meetings may be appropriate for insiders, but those same activities confuse and alienate unbelievers who enter the gathering. Keller says the number one way people come to Christ today is through a process (not an event or program), and part of that process needs to be that they are invited into communities of Christians. They come to our church meetings – to our worship services, our Sunday School classes, our small groups, our ministry teams, our support groups. As they are among Christians, they discover how Christ has changed our lives.

My part and yours is to ask, “How would an unbeliever respond if he or she were among us?” Is ours the kind of church where someone who is de-churched or never churched would attend more than once?

Keller says my sermons should model for you how to talk to unbelievers about our faith. Since this is a sermon series about “Why We Do What We Do,” I will offer one concrete example. Keller helped me put a “why” on something I already do try to do. If I’m going to address abortion or same sex marriage or predestination or hell I need to address those subjects as if someone who disagrees with me is right in front of me.

Keller says the number one objection of non-Christians to Christianity is our exclusive claim to truth. Let’s talk about that one. I could say in a sermon,

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If we believe the Bible as God’s Word, we need to stand up for the truth and not be ashamed of the Gospel. I know this message offends people, but we’re not supposed to be afraid of offending them. People who don’t accept Jesus are going to hell, and we must clearly tell them the only way to have a relationship with God is by believing in Jesus.

You would probably think, “I sure am glad my friend who has a lot of doubts about the Christian faith did not attend church today.”

But what if I addressed the same question this way?

A lot of people really struggle with Jesus as the only way to God. I can understand that because it really feels arrogant and judgmental to people inside and outside the church. But consider the alternatives. If all religions are equally valid, what about the religious ideas of people who think it’s OK to fly planes into towers or shoot up a Bible study in a church? You might say, “Well, I don’t think everyone is OK – people like Hitler shouldn’t go to heaven.” Then where do you draw the line if you just have to be good? How good would you have to be? 50%? 80%?

Here’s what I believe about life after death. First, if God is God, he will do the right thing. I trust him completely and don’t think I’ll be second guessing God if he lets people into heaven I don’t think belong there or if he keeps some out that I thought should be in. God is good and he’s just.

Second, God knew humans have an infinite number of ways to get our thinking wrong. So he didn’t leave it up to us to find him or figure out the truth. He personally entered our world – that’s who we believe Jesus is – and said, “I’ll do everything necessary to make it possible for you to have a relationship with me. I’ll even die for you, because I love you that much.” If I know God has provided one way out of this mess we make of life and I keep it to myself, that would be immoral.

That’s a very different approach to the same question, isn’t it? It is still a biblical answer consistent with the historic Christian faith, but it offers respect to those who differ, and opens the door for further conversation. And you might just be thinking, “I wish my non-Christian friend were here to hear that!”

The question for me as a pastor, as well as for you as a small group leader or Sunday School teacher, is whether you’re going to make it safe for people to voice honestly their doubts about God and about the Bible, and whether we model every week how to respond in love and respect when people express their doubts and struggles. We want them to feel perfectly safe to say what they’re thinking so that they’ll keep coming and the grace extended to them among believers will help them keep an open heart to God.

What will make it possible for unbelievers and the unchurched to feel accepted in our community to the point that they’re among us long enough to see the difference Christ makes in our lives? That’s our goal in worship and preaching, and that’s your goal for small groups and Sunday School classes. It’s evangelism. Amen.

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