God’s Great Evangelistic Plan

God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is not primarily evangelists or apologists, although both are vitally important.  God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is the church.  We can make no greater investment of our resources than to help churches become infectious communities of gospel-gripped people motivated and equipped to bring others into God’s family.

So what does a church need in order to be this kind of evangelistic tool in God’s hands?  It seems like there are three vital ingredients in the mix.  These could be seen as three legs on a stool, and the stool needs all three legs to be used as it was intended

1. People need to ENJOY God and the gospel.

It is easy to encourage or pressure believers to share their faith with others.  Many Sunday sermons end with the call to read our Bibles every day and witness to somebody this week.  The problem is that pressure without motivation will produce poor results.  Many will simply default to doing nothing.  Those that try to do as they have been instructed will often give a clear sense of their own obligation and reticence.  The best witnesses and evangelists will always be those that are truly gripped with the goodness of the good news of who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.

We do not want a church full of reticent and obligated witnesses.  We do want as many as possible to be so enjoying God and the gospel that they can’t help but spill that good news out to others.  This is why simply telling Christians to evangelise is never very effective.  We would achieve much more evangelistically if we invest more time in showing them Christ that their hearts become enflamed with love for him.  When someone gets engaged they can’t help but smile big and show off the ring to anyone around them.  O for churches full of people thrilled that they are more than engaged to Christ!!

2. People need to CONNECT with people outside the church.

A highly motivated community of Christians will not have much impact on their local culture if they live in isolation from it.  The New Testament does not instruct us to purposefully make connections with the people around us because it was automatically happening.  Not only is the church in the book of Acts an example to us, so is Jesus himself.  He was known as a friend of sinners.  Sadly too many churches are full of people that feel their main job is to find ways to avoid contact with non-Christians.

As leaders of churches let us lead by example and let us encourage through our teaching.  God is relational and outwardly focused to the core of his being.  Christianity has a missionary and evangelistic inclination in its very DNA.  Many Christian leaders can easily spend all their time with Christians.  Set an example by joining a club or taking a class, finding some way to connect with people that may have no other contact with true Christians.  If you are working alongside not-yet-Christians, set an example to your church by guarding time to invest in those relationships.  Invite a colleague to your home for a meal, socialize together, move the conversation beyond the superficial.  Many Christians seem to have lost the art of conversation, and asking questions seems to be a dying art.  Set an example and even teach believers how to ask questions and care about the answers.  Our local churches need to be communities that connect with those around.

3. People need to be able to COMMUNICATE the gospel when they have opportunity.

We may have motivated and connected believers in our churches that are unclear on how to present the core gospel message.  We can be overt here – tell them the value of a personal testimony that includes the three elements of before conversion, how I became a Christian, and the difference it has made since.  The power of the personal testimony is massively under-utilized by many Christians.

And why not instruct our churches with a simple gospel presentation.  I heard a famous preacher suggest the simple use of John 3:16 with four key points some years ago.  It is still my go-to explanation if the opportunity suddenly crops up.  Obviously I will adjust the explanation in light of what I know about the person I am speaking to, but still it is a useful presentation.  1. God loved so (2) God gave.  3. If we believe, then (4) we have eternal life.  It starts with the kind of God we are presenting, moves naturally into what God did for us in sending Christ to go to the cross.  It keeps the invitation unencumbered with unhelpful baggage by calling us to believe in – that is, not just believe that, but believe in … to entrust the full weight of our lives onto the person and work of Christ, with no backup plan!  And it allows us to define the Christian offer not as a free pass or a ticket to heaven, but rather as coming into the forever relationship that we were designed to enjoy.

So that is the three-part recipe for helping a church to be more effective in its evangelism.  There are other things that could be added.  For instance, it is important for a local church to establish an evangelistic baseline (for our church it is about making every Sunday accessible to guests, and running a regular evangelistic course – we use Glen Scrivener’s 321).  Then there are special events that can be highly effective.  But first and foremost, the church is not the program, it is the people, and if we can help the people in our churches to enjoy God more, be intentionally connected, and be able to communicate the gospel, then we are unleashing God’s great evangelistic strategy on the world: the local church!

We Are Not Church Sub-Culture Guardians

This morning I was sat in a coffee shop a few hundred miles from my home country.  Behind me there were six or seven elderly men in highly animated conversation.  By highly animated I mean literally shouting over each other and gesticulating wildly.  They were not in a conflict, they were in a normal Saturday morning conversation.

This would have been completely normal for a local observer, but for me as a foreigner it was highly fascinating.  Each culture has its own set of “normal” behaviours and values which will feel anything but normal to an outsider.

Another feature of this visit is the number of conversations I have been involved in that relate to church tensions. To the insiders, each conversation has reflected what they might call deeply held biblical convictions.  To my outsider ears, each conversation has reflected deeply held cultural values.  Of course, you can attach a Bible verse to such things, but at their core these issues have been much more about guarding the sub-culture of a church tradition than promoting the life-giving health of the gospel.

Just like the men shouting over each other in the coffee bar, so also the men shouting over each other in these church tensions … all are very much playing out their own cultural norms.  In the case of the church issues, some of those norms are cultural as per their country, while other norms are sub-cultural as per their denomination.

This presents a challenge for us all.  How can we know when instead of promoting the gospel in our context, we are merely reflecting the cultural and sub-cultural norms of our context?  How can we know when instead of being ambassadors for Christ in a needy world, we are instead being roadblocks to Christ that are getting in the way of people seeing His character displayed before them?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself that may help to identify where your Christianity has devolved into sub-culture promotion or protection.  Actually, it is very hard to see this in the mirror, so be sure to ask these questions in conversation with others, and especially with God – He certainly will want to help you see clearly where you are not effectively representing him.

1. Do people in your church feel comfortable bringing friends into the church community? While all might affirm the importance of inviting outsiders into the church, most will hold back if they sense that the environment is not welcoming and appropriate for their contacts.  One huge barrier will be when believers sense that their church is more about maintaining its own culture than reaching out to the lost.

2. Is there any expectation that certain issues preclude people from getting saved or hearing the gospel? It could be a lifestyle issue, an unacceptable habit, a certain look, or whatever.  Is the gospel for all, or only for those that fit in with us?

3. Do certain issues dominate conversation about church more than the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God, or the blessing of fellowship? Once you turn on the radar it soon becomes obvious what issues keep cropping up in conversation.  Perhaps if there is more talk acceptable and unacceptable behaviour than there is talk of Christ, then maybe your church or your family is more about the sub-culture of a pure church than the wonder of bride of Christ.

4. Would someone encountering your church community see you as representatives of Christ, or would they see you as guardians of a specific issue / the police for a specific sin? People will notice when they meet a love that is different from anything they have experienced before.  They will also sense when your church comes across with a guardians of purity (as defined by them).

5. Do people have thought-through biblical rationale for issues that come up a lot, or is the Bible brushed aside in conversation about that issue? If a church is dealing with specific issues repeatedly then it is not unreasonable to expect the leaders to have thought-through, biblically solid, but pastorally sensitive rationale for their position.  It is a clear indication of trouble if the Bible is dismissed when it is used to challenge a dogmatically held opinion.

 6. Does the manner of conversation and addressing difficult issues reflect the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? If the position that a person is taking is a godly position, then it won’t come across with venom and acrimony.  It will bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.  Divisive, critical, grace-less, argumentative or condemning attitudes are not evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person or church.

7. Are those who differ on a non-primary issue considered sub- or non-Christians?  Are their churches considered sub- or non-churches? The primary issues are required agreement for fellowship to exist – that is, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  No matter how important, we cannot make a non-primary issue into a primary one by simply declaring it as such ourselves.  Your view on clothing, on music, on certain hobbies, on smoking, on divorce, on tattoos, etc., does not make them primary issues.

It is good to prayerfully take stock and make sure that your church stands for, represents and smells of the beauty of the gospel, of the wonder of God’s saving grace, of the other-worldly fellowship of believers and so on.  It is so easy for our churches to become bastions of a sub-culture.  And the frightening thing is that we may not see it, even if we look in the mirror!

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

10 Pointers for Evangelistic Preaching

10 targetepThere are far more qualified voices on this subject, but nevertheless, here are 10 pointers to ponder as you anticipate preaching evangelistically.

1. God can work despite your weaknesses as a communicator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best – this is true in an individual message, and in a lifetime of ministry.  So look for ways to improve and grow in what you do as a preacher of the gospel.

2. The Gospel is good news, so proclaim it – somehow it is easier to talk about it, than to actually proclaim it.  We have great news to share, so let’s take the opportunity to get it presented.

3. The Gospel is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, not what people should do in response to your message – “Repent and believe” is not good news, it is a way of phrasing an appropriate response to the news.  The good news declares what God has done in sending his Son to earth, to us, to the cross, and what that means for people today.

4. You are representing a person, not just a set of truths – Somehow people can become quite aggressive when they declare sets of truth, but they don’t when they speak of someone they love.  Please ponder the love of God for you before you proclaim the message of his love for others.

5. You communicate by more than your words – There is also your attitude, your expression, your demeanour, your tone, your body language and your personal warmth.  Please align all of these with your message.

6. Make people want it to be true before you try to convince them that it is true – There is absolutely a place for declaring the truth and seeking to be convincing about it, but remember that simply proving your point will never usher souls into the kingdom.  We flatter ourselves if we think the world is waiting for us to be clever and convincing enough before they will respond.

7. Don’t let the truth of the truth be foggy – We live in a relativistic age that assumes you don’t even really believe what you are declaring, so be sure to undermine the fairy tale/personal crutch idea and invite them to engage with truth, history, etc.

8. Be biblical in what you say, whether or not you cite your source – Some like to point to Acts 17 and suggest Paul never quoted the Bible in his message to the philosophers in Acts.  This is simplistic and misleading.  Paul’s message was saturated in biblical truth, he just didn’t give the references all the way through.  Please be biblical.  God is a great communicator.  (There is definitely a place for preaching a passage – evangelistic exposition can be incredibly powerful, but when you aren’t “preaching a passage” please be thoroughly biblical anyway.)

9. Pray for wisdom to blend patience with boldness – It is easy to assume this is the only opportunity and present awkwardly.  It is easy to assume this isn’t the key opportunity and present weakly.  Somehow we need wisdom to find the right blend.  Cumulative evangelistic ministry is very powerful, but for some people this may be a unique moment.  We need both boldness and patience.

10. Always remember that it is the Holy Spirit who changes lives – Not your technique, nor your message, nor your learning, nor your cool persona, nor your stunning powerpoint, nor your well-worked structure.  It is a work of God to save a hell-bound sinner and draw them into his family.  Pray passionately.  Proclaim persuasively.  Depend completely.

I can already think of more to add.  What would you add?

(Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preacherstrained preachersuntrained preacherspreaching Easterteam preaching and special occasion preaching.)

Glen Scrivener – Incarnation: The True Turning Point

Glen-321A-300x267Glen Scrivener is an evangelist with Revival Media.  He writes about evangelism and theology at ChristTheTruth.net and his evangelistic book, 321, comes out in the autumn: three-two-one.org  Glen visits us at Cor Deo for a day during each season of the programme to talk gospel together with us and it is always a real help.  As we continue this series to mark the release of Pleased to Dwell, here is Glen on the significance of the Incarnation for the Gospel and how we communicate it to others.

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The centre of evangelicalism is the believer’s “choice for God” – that’s Diarmaid MacCullogh’s opinion, Oxford’s Professor of Church History. When he made this claim during his “History of Christianity” on the BBC, I howled in protest, throwing pillows, shoes, the cat – anything – at the TV screen. Surely the professor has it backwards. It’s God’s choice for us, right? Surely it’s Jesus – the Chosen One – coming down, not us – the mighty decision makers – choosing upwards.

But as the episode unfolded I realised that it wasn’t the Professor who had gotten it backwards – it was evangelicalism. MacCullogh was just being honest. He was describing the movement as it is – not as it ought to be. And who can deny that, on the ground, the actual centre of gravity for global evangelicalism is “our choice for God”?

Think of sermons on Luke 15 and ask where our attention lies today. If an evangelist preaches a “message of salvation”, where will the emphasis be? More often than not, we focus on the prodigal in the pigsty. The sinner must make “a choice for God.” Compare this with the theology of the early church. Where would they see salvation in Luke 15? Primarily they would speak of Christ’s opening parable. God the Son is the Good Shepherd seeking out His lost sheep. Through His incarnation, He takes up our humanity, through His death He takes responsibility for our sins, through His exaltation He marches us – now perfected – home to the Father.

We must learn from the incarnation that salvation is a case of “God coming down.” Therefore, where is the turning point in our relationship with God? Is it our turn to God – praying the sinner’s prayer, for instance? Surely, more profoundly, it’s God’s turn to us in Jesus. Where is the renovation of our human nature? Is it our decision to get right with God? Surely it’s Christ’s decision to hoist us on His shoulders and carry us home. If this is true, what kind of evangelists ought we to be?

Saturday’s Thought: Preaching for Response

No preacher would admit to preaching in order to fill time, or to fulfill an obligation, or to fill a pulpit.  We say we preach for response.  After all, what other motivation could we cite?  I know, some will quickly rush to language of glorifying God.  But God isn’t pleased by time filling or untouched listeners.  So what do we mean?

Do we mean that preaching should get more than a polite thank you from the gathered listeners?  Sure.  Do we mean that preaching should get a positive or exuberant statement of reception from the listeners?  I don’t think so.  The Lord’s preaching certainly seemed to polarize rather than please all.  Some will be stirred and drawn, others will be offended and withdraw.

This is where it gets interesting for me, and here’s the thought for the day.  What is the division or polarization created by our preaching?  Simplistically we might assume that it is a sorting of sinners and saints.  You know, those in sin pushed away by how seriously we address sin and the godly encouraged; the culture upset and absent while the churchy folks pleased and present.  But that didn’t seem to be the result of Jesus’ preaching, did it?

What if we realize that the gospel is not about preaching a message of pressuring responsibility?  That is, what if we preach the glorious loving grace of God that stirs and warms and draws hearts to Christ?  Instead of whipping our listeners with burdens, what if we preach the One who was whipped for them?

This kind of preaching typically offends the religious who feel responsible for their own goodness.  These are the people who don’t see their own efforts and diligence and pride and self-centredness as being at all sin-stained.  This kind of preaching typically draws the broken and hurting and weak.

When we switch from preaching responsibility to actually preaching for a response we may find that the polarization both switches and increases.  When we recognize the difference between responsibility and response, then certainly our preaching will change.  It is so easy to preach to pressure people to be good.  It takes something more to preach how good Christ is, so that listeners might be drawn to Him.  What is the something more?

I suppose it comes down to me on my own with my Bible and my Lord.  Is it all about me?  Or about Him?  Is it about what I must do (responsibility)?  Or about what He is like (response)?

Preaching for response requires clarity on the distinction between response and responsibility.

Saturday Short Thought: Glorious Gospel

In a little while I’m heading to London to speak at a Cor Deo Delighted by God conference.  Our subtitle for the day is Glorious Gospel.  I am excited to hear the other sessions and to ponder together just how glorious the gospel really is.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is how glorious our God is, and what kind of gospel He has given us.  Too often the presentation of the gospel I hear is less than glorious.

It seems like a negotiation between a willing sinner and a reticent God.  The sinner is willing to say some words in order to gain a significant package of benefits.  And God is open to some sort of a contractual deal, but really is essentially resistant without the intervention of a kind lawyer working for us.

This is such a corruption of the truth.  God’s initiative is critical, and the extent to which He has gone to overcome the resistance of the human heart is stunning.  And as for the language of contracts, let’s dump that in the grip of His fatherly embrace!

The gospel is wondrously glorious, but it’s the kind of glory that involves His being high and lifted up, in absolute self-giving humiliation.

Let’s be sure we don’t preach a watered down, or petty, or negotiated gospel.

PS We’d really appreciate your prayers for today’s conference to go well!

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Next Week: The 10 Biggest Big Ideas

In the classroom Haddon Robinson said more than once that there are basically eight to ten big big ideas in the Bible.  He never gave us a list, but I’ll offer mine starting on Monday.  What would you include?

The Challenge of Consistency

I tend to agree with the notion of there being a difference between small church and big church.  A small church, perhaps under 100 people, will tend to have strengths that can become weaknesses in a larger church, perhaps over 200 people.  For instance, in a small church, low standards of music and preaching will be smiled at since everyone knows the individual who is “trying their best.”  But once that church grows through the transitional stage and becomes bigger, such low standards become more counter productive.  Visitors (and there will probably be more now) don’t know the individual up front and the whole dynamic doesn’t work quite so well.  While fellowship is often a strength in smaller churches, it takes deliberate work to achieve that in a larger church.  The emphasis on “up-front” standards inevitably increases as a church grows.

This provides a challenge.  I suppose it is a challenge for all churches of all sizes.  It is especially a challenge for churches with some creative capacity (people, skills, people-hours, etc.).  When you have a guest service of a certain standard, then people will bring guests along.  If that service is done well, then some of those guests might return the next week.  There’s the problem.  If all the effort to be clear and relevant and engaging and effective in the music, the preaching, the presentation, etc., if all that effort is spent on one Sunday, what about the next?

The challenge is consistency.  If your church has a goal of bringing the unchurched to a particular service, then it is worth thinking through whether greater consistency could be achieved in that service 52 times each year.  At that point people would be much more inclined to risk their own relationships and bring people along to the guest events.

There has to be flexibility in this.  Different churches have different capacities for guest events.  The vast majority cannot live up to the standards seen in the small number of “megachurches.”  There also has to be balance in this.  The primary role of the church service may not be evangelism.  Nevertheless, taking into account the specific ethos of a church, it would be worth giving some thought to greater consistency between guest events and normal Sundays.

Listen to Jonathan Edwards

I just listened to Max McLean’s performance of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is considered the most famous sermon ever preached in US history. The sermon is available as a free download here. Actually it has been edited down to about 20 minutes of actual sermon (rather than 43), with extra comments before and after – think radio show. Nonetheless, it’s free and worth hearing.

It is worth hearing both as a listener to be ministered to, and as a preacher to notice a few things. First and foremost, listen as a listener. Get a sense of why people trembled and cried out for mercy. Listen, not for rhetorical power (although I’ll come to that), but for the strong truth of the gospel itself – that’s where “power” is. Listen to stir your appreciation for God’s favor. Listen to stir a passion for the lost, to light afresh a flame for evangelism.

And you can listen as a preacher too. Even this shortened version allows us to hear a classic example of the power of a controlling idea. You will appreciate powerful and vivid sensory imagery conveyed in well-chosen words. Surely, this will stir prayer for your own preaching and those that will hear it.

Monday: Renewing Vision Day

Monday is a good day to take stock, take a deep breath and recommit ourselves to God’s work.  That doesn’t just mean being willing to ever preach again, although for some that might be a good step on a Monday morning!  It means recommitting to really do the work of biblical preaching, rather than just going through the motions.  A couple of quotes from Philip Ryken’s chapter “Preaching that Reforms” in Preach the Word:

If we are living in an age of relativism and narcissism, what are the implications for preaching?  Obviously, Bible teaching will be out of favor.  As sinners, we generally do not like to have our selfishness exposed; but this is one of the primary purposes of preaching the Bible.  In a post-Christian culture, the last thing people want to hear is the truth about their self-centeredness.  What preaching there is, therefore, tends to be therapeutic rather than prophetic.  It aims to make people feel better about who they are rather than to challenge them to become, by God’s grace, what they are not. (p192)

How tempting it is to preach messages that are therapeutic, rather than prophetic.  It’s hard to choose to preach the Word when its message is uncomfortable, unpopular, “unsophisticated” or somehow might offend somebody.  Later in the chapter, Ryken addresses the issue of evangelism:

This kind of proclamation requires boldness, a virtue that is sadly lacking in the contemporary church.  One of the reasons evangelicalism is in decline is because Christians have lost their nerve.  In these post-Christian times, we tend to be a subculture rather than a counterculture. (p198 )

I am not encouraging insensitive brash proclamation, or unnecessarily offensive preaching.  I am just taking stock of my own ministry again this morning and renewing my vision to preach the Word.  It’s the greatest privilege, but it demands an appropriate level of boldness too.  Let’s set our sights on our Lord afresh in order to renew our vision of Him, His Word, His building of His church, His mission to the world … and our privilege of participation in that.