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Have you ever had a wonderful new experience or come to a fresh new understanding about something and then wanted to share it with someone you cared about? Of course you have. Once for me it was sharing how I learned to prepare fried green tomatoes. Maybe for you it was the California Redwoods you saw on vacation. Or your first day in a new school. Or a painting or a ball game or a concert.
Wouldn’t you agree — whenever we come upon something intriguing or interesting or important to us, we find a way to tell someone? We find a way to get the word out. As Christians this is of greatest importance when we come to our faith. We believe that what God did in sending his only Son Jesus Christ, a part of Himself, to us and our world, to say what He said and do what He did, is the most fantastic event ever to take place in the history of the world.
The story of God’s intervention onto this planet for us we call the Gospel. Gospel simply means “Good News.” Each of the four accounts of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Bible found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are called Gospels. They are the records of this good news. They are the sharing of eye witnesses and secondary witnesses to Jesus Christ. And when we come into vital contact with Jesus Christ through this Gospel, amazing things happen in our lives.
In short, the Gospel shows us that God loves us and cares for us. In Christ, God has come to reconnect us with God, with ourselves, with one another. What God has done for us, He calls us to share with others. Jesus calls us to go fishing for people. Like those disciples in the boat that day, we are called to put the boats of our lives out into the deep waters and put our nets down anticipating a catch. The big theological word for all this is evangelism.
It is a word that may sometimes puts us off a bit, because we have seen its abuse. But evangelism is a good word. It means announcing good news. An evangelist is one who announces good news. The Presbyterian Book of Order lifts up the importance of evangelism by saying, “God sends the church in the power of the Holy Spirit to call people everywhere to believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to invite them into the community of faith to worship and serve the triune God.”1 That is a good book definition. But the one I like most simply says, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
I think most of us understand that Christianity is to be shared. Most of us would agree to the high level of importance our faith should have in our lives even if we are not where we want to be with it right now. And we know that Christianity traveled worldwide because somebody told somebody else who told somebody else, and as each person heard, like the person who told them, they trusted the God they had been told about by exercising the gift of faith. We know that is the short answer to how faith spreads.
But when it comes down to where we live, aren’t we often reluctant to tell another person about what has come to be so important to us? How many business associates and new neighbors do we welcome to join our book club or golf group, but never mention our church? Maybe sometime we have been talking to somebody at a party about football or politics or nothing in particular and sensed they are struggling in their life, yet say not a word about Jesus Christ. Maybe we are seated on a plane and get into one of those long conversations with our seat-mate and they pour out their soul about their troubles. Yet we do not mention the source of our hope. Maybe we stumble upon someone who needed our kindness and compassion, a good deed for Jesus Christ, but we pass by on the other side.
Too often we think, well you know I am not one of “those kind” of Christians. We seek refuge in some vague image of Presbyterian propriety that is not true to our own beliefs, simply because we may tend to express ourselves in a calmer, more reasoned, reserved way than some others.
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and renowned author, writes in Telling Secrets about teaching a class at Harvard Divinity School. Now Buechner is by disposition quite shy. But in this class he was trying to be personal and tell the class about his own faith — how he had tried over the years to express it. At the same time he was trying to get the class to talk about their own faith. But no one replied. No one said a word. So finally, in frustration, Buechner said, ‘You remind me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in the fish store with your round blank eyes.”
One fellow then piped up and said, “The reason I don’t say anything about what I believe is that I am afraid it will be shot down.” I imagine he speaks for many of us. We want to say something. We really do believe. But we are uncomfortable telling someone else for fear we will look silly or receive a putdown.
We need the courageous perspective of Paul as he opens his immortal letter to the Romans. Paul begins this most comprehensive explanation of the Gospel with warm expressions of love to those in Rome. He describes his great yearning to reach Rome and meet them face to face. He lets them know he prays regularly for them asking God that he be allowed to come to them. Because, you see, he has this great need to be mutually encouraged by them. “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”2
The context of mutual encouragement is essential for sharing faith. The world is full of discouragers. But everyone needs to be encouraged and built up, not torn down. And encouragement is a gift we all have to give. Often a word of praise or thanks or appreciation has kept someone going. Paul encourages the Romans.
Have you ever considered that this good news about Jesus Christ is the most encouraging word in all the world? Not about putting-down or shooting-down, the Gospel is about building up in love. If Jesus Christ were to walk in here today and talk to you, do you think He would say, “You are a miserable worm destined for hell? Of course not. Jesus loves you very much, and if He were standing right here He would show you and tell you how much.
Paul is not ashamed to share. Why? Because he has come to believe the gospel for what it is, the very power of God in us. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”
Paul is eager to spread the Good News because he has experienced its power in his own life. From his background as a pious Pharisee and keeper of the Law of Moses, Paul encountered on the Damascus Road, and many times since, the liberating power of God in his own life. The Greek word for power is dunamis, from which we derive the word dynamite. Paul has experienced for himself that his new faith in Jesus Christ has that sort of power. Not simply a nice idea, not simply another subjective philosophy for coping with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
But God for real has come in power to free us, open us, and enable us to live life to the full now and forever. That is salvation. And it is for everybody, sophisticated Greeks, illiterate barbarians, mover-and-shaker Romans. All may now receive the very Righteousness of God., And Paul came to believe that getting this message out so people can hear it and respond in faith, is the most important thing he can do with his life. Paul is not ashamed of it.
Our young people who made the mission trip to Chicago certainly were not ashamed either. As Emily Green, the first youth Elder ever elected in this church said to the congregation at First Presbyterian Church in inner city Chicago on behalf of the 46 other young people and adults from Western Kentucky Presbytery, “We are all people of God, wrestling with our faith. This is one way for us to work out our faith in our daily lives.”
Emily and those with her in Chicago were not ashamed to share the love of Jesus Christ. They shared it with each brush-full of paint, each snip of the overgrown bushes, each cushion recovered in that historic old church. They shared it with each kind word they exchanged with neighborhood kids in that run-down part of the city. They were saying and they were showing the gospel. And as they did, they were growing in their own experience of God in their lives.
I believe the most powerful moments our Church ever experiences comes when people share their faith with one another. Whenever new members join, or confirmation class participants profess, or new officers share their story, something wonderful happens. Each person has a different route to their encounter with the living Lord. But each is profound. Each is encouraging for others to hear. Faith sharing begins in encouragement not fear and goes on to encourage others. It is a story you and I can share — as one of our hymns says,
If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, ‘He died for us all.’
One Sunday morning, Aldous Huxley, the famous 19th-century agnostic, was staying with friends. His hosts left for church, but he declined to go. But walking out in the village he encountered a simple fellow who lived nearby who, like Huxley’s hosts, was on his way to church. Huxley said, “Instead of going to church today, will you sit down and tell me why you are a Christian and what your faith means to you?” The man said, “Oh but you could demolish all of my arguments in a minute.” Huxley said, “I do not want to argue with you. I have no intention of doing so. I simply want to hear your story.” So the man stayed with him and told him the story of his faith journey.
Earlier this summer a businessman in a neighboring community called me. I had gotten to know him through the Emmaus community here in Bowling Green. He is a salesman, a member of the First Presbyterian Church in his town, and a tremendously warm encouraging human being. “Reverend,” he said, “I have recently spoken to two people who need your church. One is a single mom. She needs your church before she gets into trouble. The other is a couple named Ron and Kelly Taylor3.” Both the single mom and the Taylors were customers of his.
He is never pushy in this, but if he sees the people he serves are open he will talk to them about his faith and suggest a church he feels might be right for them. I have not yet met the single mom, although I have written her. But Ron and Kelly Taylor were here the next Sunday after talking with Michele and have been attending regularly. Ron even has been staying to wash dishes after the Saturday morning Men’s Promise Keeper Meetings.
Friends, you have a story to tell. It is not about arguing or proving or defending. It is about sharing. It is about one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. God will lead you to take a risk and share your story with someone who needs to hear. Ask God for an opportunity to be an encourager in the faith, and he will surely provide one. Throw out your net of care and compassion and see how great the catch will be.
1Book of Order, PCUSA, W-7.201e.&f.
3Not the real names.