On January, 2, 2017, exactly one third of a religious group called, United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing died. This group, more commonly known as the Shakers, went from three people down to two people. How did the once thriving Shaker community dwindle down to this tiny group? For one thing, they believed in lifelong celibacy and so new Shakers were being born into the community. In addition, they had formally ceased all missionary activity. Not only did they stop seeking converts, they shut down membership, not allowing any new people to join. These two decisions have severely limited the long-term viability of the group.
We definitely rejoice when our church grows, especially when a baby is born. Our three youngest children are adopted and we kept our church on their toes when we would suddenly show up with a new baby with no warning.
As much as we want our church to grow through the birth of new babies and the raising of children, we also believe in growth through evangelism. Some people do not like the word evangelism and yet it literally means the announcing good news. Growth through conversion is written into the DNA of the Christian Church. It can be argued convincingly that the Church was born on the day of Pentecost. That same day, the Apostle Peter preached a sermon from which 3,000 people decided to follow Jesus. When we look at the history of the early church in Acts, we know more about the way they shared their faith than any other aspect of church life.
It is important to understand why we share our faith. It is not out of intolerance. I am not intolerant of other faiths. I believe in freedom of religious expression for all people. I want people of other faiths to have the freedom to share with me, just as I want the freedom to share with them. When this is done in a respectful and kind way, it promotes tolerance rather than intolerance. We want to tell people about Jesus because the gospel is literally good news. Jesus has changed us and we believe that Jesus wants to change others. It would be intolerant if we refused to share that Jesus died and rose again to reconcile us to God.
Knowing that evangelism would be central to the church, Jesus began training his disciples on how to do it. It was not enough for Jesus to do the preaching. The disciples needed to be able to do this. And not just the twelve, for the task was much bigger than that. Although Jesus had an inner core of twelve, he had a much larger group of disciples. Of these, he sent seventy-two out on a mission. I believe that as Christians in this time and this place, there is much that we can learn from their experience. We are going to look at six attributes of a missional church.
The first thing we notice is that Jesus sent the disciples out. He didn’t say that they should just be ready in case someone came to them and asked them how to get to heaven. Jesus sent them out into the towns, to go to the places where the people were. They were to be proactive rather than reactive.
There is a temptation for churches to focus on reactive evangelism. There is a model of church growth called attractional. Basically, we do church, try to make it as impressive as possible, pray that some non-Christians just show up and hope that they get the message and follow Jesus. The problem is that most non-Christians are not planning on just showing up at church in attempt to find God. Some do, but it is not the trend. Not only that, I see the biblical model of a worship service as being the building up of Christians rather than the evangelism of the non-Christian.
This means that we need to do what the seventy-two did and go out where people are. This does not mean that you have to go on a mission trip to Africa. Your mission field might be your family, your neighbours or your co-workers. It also means that you might need to initiate conversation. I’m not talking about shoving religion down people’s throat. Nobody like that. It can be just subtle comments about spirituality, ethics or faith. It might be as simple as sharing an answered prayer. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what kind of comment would you be open to if you were in their shoes? This is hard and as an introvert, it does not come easy to me either. But if we are open, God can use us.
Harvest is Plentiful
But do people really want to hear about Jesus? We live in what is called a post-Christian society. Doesn’t that mean that everyone is past this?
In our passage, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful. Jesus admits that there is a problem, but the problem is not that people are closed to the gospel, the problem is that there are not enough Christians bringing in the harvest.
But that was almost two thousand years ago. There has been so much change since then. From my experience, people are very much open to having spiritual conversations. I find that it is usually the other person and not me that brings up religion. It is the aggressive and pushy evangelism that people are not open to. Being respectful of different opinions and sharing from your own experience still works very well. The harvest is still great and people are coming to faith on a regular basis.
Rely on God
If I was planning a mission trip, I would want to make sure that everything we needed was with us. I would ten to overpack, just in case. Jesus went the opposite route. Jesus told them not to bring anything with them. Why? So that we would have to fully rely on God.
The truth is that you can grow a church without God. There are gimmicks and programs that will bring people out. However our goal is not to fill pews, but to share Jesus. This requires fully relying on God. That does not mean that we never prepare anything. I study apologetics to try and have answers when people ask. But I also know that even that won’t work without God’s power. I have talked to many people and had to say quick prayers for God’s wisdom. Don’t dare try to share your faith in your own power,
There is Opposition
I said that many people are open to the gospel. That is true, but there are some that are not. Jesus warned his disciples that he was sending them among wolves. There are still wolves today. These are not just people who are not particularly into religion. These are people who see religion as dangerous. They oppose any public display of religion and are especially against the sharing of religious faith. Even though these wolves are in the minority, they can cause a stir far beyond their numbers. We need to be aware that this opposition exists, but we cannot let them stop us.In fact, we should take their opposition as a sign that we are on the right track.
So what does this look like? What are we supposed to do when we get outside of this building? Do we just hand out religious pamphlets or share a memorized presentation? Take a look at the model Jesus shares with his disciples. Enter into relationships with people and share meals with them. Of all the commandments that are in the Bible, did you realize that one of them was to eat whatever is offered to you. After loving God and loving our neighbour, I think this is the third greatest commandment!
The basic idea is that if we are to be missional, we need to enter into relationships. This is sometimes called “friendship evangelism.” The problem with that term is that there is a temptation to pretend to be friends to make a convert. The person is more a project than anything. That is not acceptable. We need to engage in real and healthy relationships. When that happens, any sharing that is given, will be accepted because they know you care.
Jesus was very aware that not everyone will welcome this message. These are not the wolves who want to stop the message but rather the people who do not want to receive it. In that case, we need to follow the words of the prophet, “You need when to hold them, know when to fold them, when to walk away, know when to run.” If we present the message of Jesus to someone and they reject it, we should not keep pushing. If we get too aggressive, even out of love for Jesus, we do more harm than good. We need to respect people’s feelings and leave them in God’s hands. Pray for them and love them, but don’t be a pest. There are other people who are open to Jesus. Let us look for those opportunities, let us look for that person of peace that Jesus describes, and share with them.
Do you notice what I left out of this message? I never suggested the creation of a formal evangelistic program for the church. There is a place for such programs and we need to talk about how we can be more intentional as a congregation in our outreach.
But I truly believe that being a missional church requires that each of us buy into this on our own first. When we accept the calling that Jesus has on us to go out and share good news, then we can talk about congregational ways to do this. Right now, however, God has placed you in a particular place. You have an opportunity with certain people that I do not. You have relationships that I do not. You can make a difference right where you are. Look all around you, the harvest is plentiful.