A number of years ago Norman Cousins wrote an editorial in Saturday Review in which he reported a conversation he had on a trip in India. He was talking with a Hindu priest named Satis Prasad. The man said he wanted to come to our country to work as a missionary among the Americans. Cousins assumed that he meant that he wanted to convert Americans to the Hindu religion, but when asked, Satis Prasad said, “Oh no, I would like to convert them to the Christian religion. Christianity cannot survive in the abstract. It needs not membership, but believers. The people of your country may claim they believe in Christianity, but from what I read at this distance, Christianity is more a custom than anything else. I would ask that either you accept the teachings of Jesus in your everday life and in your affairs as a nation, or stop invoking His name as sanction for everything you do. I want to help save Christianity for the Christian.”
What an interesting and incisive observation. Looking through the eyes of a non-Christian a Hindu says that Christianity in America is more custom than religion. If it is not lived in the marketplace and practiced in the boardrooms and honored in the halls of justice, it will be lost.
The accuracy of Satis Prasad’s assessment of Christianity can be questioned theologically because we know that the risen Lord Jesus Christ will not allow His church to be lost. But practically speaking, in terms of the genuineness of Christian faith in our lives as well as the influence of Christianity in our society, the Hindu is profoundly correct. After all, isn’t this exactly what Jesus Himself said? “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father in heaven.” It’s not enough to make a verbal profession of faith in Jesus Christ. That will not stand before the judgment seat. But rather it is those who believe and then obey. Faith without works is dead.
But what kind of works? What in the world will a layman do? From time to time I am approached by a member of the church and asked the question, “What can I do?” They really want to do something here at the church, so I usually put them in touch with the director of volunteer services and we try to match their skills with some particular area of need or service here in the church. The services of those of you who volunteer your talents and time to the work of Jesus Christ in the church are vital to the health and the strength of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. In fact, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 of you are teaching Sunday School classes, or singing in the choirs, or ushering or greeting, waiting on tables, counting the offering, stuffing envelopes for mailing. I could go on and on.
But is that all that God calls Christian men and women to do? What I have mentioned is important. But according to a study which I read several years ago, no church can create enough meaningful jobs for all of its members to do something in church. In fact, only one-third of the membership of a local church can be given a job doing church work. So if you think that serving the Lord means doing some work in the church, then two-thirds of you are doomed to frustration and disappointment.
What does our Lord expect? What does he want of you and of me? What does the New Testament teach about the service which the average Christian can engage in for the Lord?
Several years ago, Dr. Richard Halverson, who then was the pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, and who is now the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, wrote an article in Christianity Today in which he said in part, “One man who visited me some months ago commented, “I’m forty-five years of age. I’ve been an engineer for twenty years. Now I want to go to seminary so I can serve the Lord’.” Dr. Halverson said, “It would have been humorous if it were not so tragic. Somehow he had missed the point that Christ had called him to be an engineer. If he had understood what the New Testament teaches, everything he did as an engineer could have been as service for Jesus Christ. If professionalism is the means whereby God’s plan for the whole earth is implemented, then we expose that plan to the mercy of economics, depending upon circumstances. It takes a number of laity to support one professional in ministry. The whole mission is thus delicately sensitive to inflation, recession, depression, and other factors. The more professionals sent to the field, the greater the number of laity it takes to support them. What a difference the New Testament paints of the believers, where believers were Spirit filled, and because a believer was filled with the Spirit of God, he was a witness at his job and in his community. He did not have to be taught how to witness. He spoke as the Spirit gave him utterance, and he did it spontaneously because of the indwelling presence of Christ.”
So what does it mean to do the Lord’s work? What is the ministry of the laity? What does it mean to serve Christ? Let me use an analogy I have used before. The church can be compared to a filling station. A filling station never exists for its own sake. It always exists for the purpose of serving the cars which drive in, get lubricated, get cleaned, get the tires filled with air, and get repairs done. The purpose of the service station is to send the car back on the road in good condition to go wherever it is supposed to go. You do not find huge parking lots at service stations inviting all the people to come in and park. The quicker they get them out, the better.
The church is something like that. If we ever think of the church as an end in itself, that the purpose of the church is simply to draw in members and to get more people on our rolls, and somehow to keep them happy and occupied on the church premises, we have missed the whole point of what the New Testament says is the purpose of the church.
The church gathers for worship. It gathers for fellowship. It gathers to learn. It gathers to be inspired. It gathers to encourage one another. But the whole purpose of the church is to send you back into the world as Christ’s man or women where you live and where you work and where you play. So we are a spiritual filling station giving you spiritual food, taking care of those who are hurt, and need a little repair work, a little loving care, and then send you back to do Christ’s work where you live. So the church exists for the purpose of meeting spiritual needs and then to deploy the converted, the knowledgeable and equipped Christians to serve the Lord in the world.
So what’s a Christian to do? Let me tell you three things, and I think you’ve heard these before. What’s a layman to do? Get converted. To be converted simply means to be changed from one function to another, to be turned from one direction to another, to have a different goal and a different purpose in life than one has prior to meeting Christ. Conversion is the act of God in which He produces new life and heads us in His direction. If you’ve never been converted, you can be converted by opening your heart to Jesus Christ, invite Him in and ask Him to do His work of regeneration, of changing you into the man or woman or young person which He wants you to be.
The second thing which a layman is to do is to Get knowledge — to learn. After all, that is what the word “disciple” means. It means to be somebody who is learning by following, and following while we learn. The whole Christian Education program of the church is designed to help you be a learner.
We come as a congregation to worship. Here is where we are encouraged, where we hopefully meet God in an experience of worship, and we give to Him the glory and the praise which is due to Him, and we give Him our attention to hear what He has to say.
What’s a layman to do? Get converted, and get knowledge, and then get going. Get out in the world. There you serve Christ in the marketplace, and in the law courts, in the teaching professions and the hospitals as doctors and nurses, in the home as a husband and father or housewife and mother. That’s where we serve the Lord.
So the work of the ministry of the lay people, the laymen, the laywomen, is to serve Christ in the world where He has put you. The church exists only for the purpose of helping you corporately worship and learn, but then sends you back out. Now, of course we realize that even in a service station you have to have some attendants to man the pumps, and the larger the service station, the more attendants you have to have. But the attendants do not exist for their own sake. They exist for the purpose of helping lay men and lay women get back out into the world to do God’s work there.
There are times when I envy you laymen because I realize that as a preacher people expect me to act a certain way and to say certain things. If they know I am a preacher, their vocabulary changes. Someone has said that the big difference in the effectiveness of the layman witnessing and the preacher witnessing is that the preacher is the paid professional, the layman is the satisfied customer. That was never more true for me in my own feelings than about ten years ago after our family had been visiting up East, and were coming back from our vacation. We stopped over in Memphis for three days to see some friends, and just to rest and relax before coming back to Dallas. I am a morning person. That is one reason why I do not stay out very late at night because I wake up at 5:00 regardless of when I go to bed. By the way, that is a wonderful time of day. The telephone never rings. Please don’t any of you all change that. In the motel I woke up early and the family was still asleep, so I quietly dressed and took my New Testament and a little devotional notebook which I keep, and I went to the restaurant. The waitress came around and brought me a menu and I said, “I’d just like to have coffee, please.” So she brought me a cup and filled it, so I sat there for some time reading and meditating and drinking coffee. She came around and said, “Can I serve you breakfast?” I said, “No, I’m waiting for my family to wake up.” I continued to read and to meditate.
The next morning I was down there again, and the same waitress came up with a cup of coffee and menu. Again it was the same story; I would just like coffee until my family wakes up. The third morning she came over, looked at me and said, “Are you a preacher?” How I wish I could have said to her, “No, I’m not. I’m just a layman who loves the Lord and wants to spend some time early in the morning reading and thinking and praying.” But I couldn’t. Of course I had to say, “Yes, I am.”
But why? Why is it that reading a Bible is the mark of a preacher and not a layman? I had the feeling that if I had been a layman I could have effectively witnessed to her. I could have said something to her that being a preacher I couldn’t say because she’d automatically discount it. I’m the paid professional.
What’s the layman to do? The ministry of the laity is to serve Christ where he or she lives and works and plays. A government lawyer in Washington, D.C. was a partner in a private practice. He began to drink heavily and before long he became a confirmed alcoholic. As a result after some months he lost his practice and finally lost his wife and family. Then several years later through an experience of Christ and membership in Alcoholics Anonymous he began a new life. He was reunited with his wife and rehired by his old law firm as a very lowly staff member.
In that position he was given a very tough case to see how competent he now was. It was a hopeless case in which his firm represented one of two large corporations which had been deadlocked in legal proceedings for several years. One day the lawyer called together the legal advisors for both of the parties and he simply related to them a story of how God had solved the insolvable problem of his own life. He suggested that most of the men in the room also believed in God. He affirmed his conviction that there must be a solution for this very involved problem which was costing both corporations a great deal of time and money. So he asked all of those people sitting there if they would take a few moments in silence and silently ask God in His own way what He could do to solve the problem. Thirty minutes later the case was solved to the satisfaction of both parties. It was solved because one man witnessed to how God had solved his personal problems and he believed that God could solve their corporate problems as well.
Several years ago seven hundred fifty laymen who were not Christians were asked this question, “If you wanted to talk to someone about spiritual matters, who would you want to talk to: a member of your family, a clergyman, an evangelist, or a layman in the same business you’re in?” Ninety-one percent replied, “A layman in the same kind of business I’m in.” If a layman or a laywoman in your particular business wanted to have some help with spiritual problems, would they recognize you as a fellow layman who somehow might have an answer to the problems they face? What an opportunity! There’s no way that I or the entire staff of this church can touch the multitude of lives which you all touch every day. You are the front line troops in the army of the Lord. That’s what a layman’s to do.
I am afraid that we very easily fall into the trap of becoming too enamored with the church as an institution, as an organization of people that meet and carry on programs, and forget that church work and the Lord’s work are not synonymous. The Lord’s work is bigger than the church’s work. The front lines of the faith are out there where you live and work and play. There are people you will meet and whose lives you will touch that none of us on the staff will ever touch. It means that if Christ is going to touch their lives, it is going to be because you are ready and willing and obedient.
George Duncan relates a story which he first heard from Rita Snowden who tells of a delightful holiday in Devon, England. She was sitting at the window of the house where she was staying and suddenly the air seemed to be filled with fragrance. It was so noticeable, so striking that she asked herself where on earth it could be coming from. She looked out of the window and all she saw was ordinary people walking up and down the street on lunch break. So she went out on the street and the fragrance was even stronger. So she asked her hostess, “Where does this fragrance come from?” The hostess of the house said, “Don’t you know? These people all work in a perfume factory. They live in the fragrance all day and when they come out at lunch time, they bring the fragrance with them.”
That’s what Paul is saying in our text. We are the fragrance of Jesus Christ in the world. Do you live in the presence of Christ and allow Him such control in your life that wherever you are people get the fragrance of Christ from you? That is what a layman is to do!