September 21, 2014

Ready and Unafraid

Okay, survey time this morning: By a show of hands, how many of you believe that it is somewhat to very important for Christians to share our faith with others?  Second survey question: How many of you actively share your faith with others…wait…let’s not raise our hands on that one.  Evangelism.  It is a subject both desired and dreaded by many Christians.  On the one hand as our little survey indicated, followers of Jesus generally have a sense that we are supposed to be sharing our faith on a regular basis.  When Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he did not also add, “whenever it’s most convenient for you.”  On the other hand, for many Christians, the thought of sharing our faith verbally and publically with another person makes us break out in cold sweats.

A couple of years ago a group called the Evangelical Alliance did a survey of Christians in England focused on their thoughts about sharing the Gospel with non-Christians.  In addition to the usual fill-in-the-blank responses, they took some narrative responses as well.  When asked why they don’t share their faith like they feel they should respondents offered reasons that may sound familiar.  Perhaps you’ve had thoughts along these lines before: “I am very rarely in the presence of people who are not Christians.”  “I find it difficult to know where to start the conversation.”  “I generally find talking about church and the social activities associated with it, and about ‘religion’, much easier than about Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit and my personal relationship/encounters with them.”  Or perhaps this one sounds familiar: “I lack confidence to witness to my faith outside of the church environment.  This is particularly true at work where the atmosphere and ethos is not receptive to issues of faith.”  About half of the survey respondents indicated they are “just too scared to talk about my faith with non-Christians.”

What becomes clear when examining some of these survey results is that for at least Christians in England, and I suspect we can just go ahead and expand that out to include Christians in the West generally, most believers consider themselves to be both unprepared and afraid of sharing the Gospel with the people most in need of hearing it.  We know this is a problem, but we don’t really do anything about it.   On occasion (if we have to) we’ll listen to sermons tell us why we should witness or hear presentations by folks who have the gift of evangelism and can’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it like they do.  On that note, I once heard a sermon by a well-known evangelist named Bill Fay who pioneered a popular evangelism technique in which he called the congregation to repent, not of their sins, but of not witnessing like we should be.  While we can debate the necessity of guilt-inducing presentations like that I think we can easily agree that they aren’t helpful.  Perhaps what we need instead of guilt is a compelling story of a regular guy who found himself in a place where he needed to get ready and dispatch with any fear in order to coherently share his faith before a largely hostile audience.  As it just so happens, we’ve shown one here twice in the past week.

In the movie God’s Not Dead we are told the story of a young man who is given a big, but intimidating stage to share his faith and steps up in a big way.  When Josh Wheaton enrolls in college he finds himself in the freshman psychology class taught by Dr. Jeffery Radisson.  Radisson, like many college professors, is an aggressive atheist who demands that all of his students start out the year by either signing a statement that reads “God is dead” or else defending the antithesis, namely, that God is not dead.  In addition to this particular scene, over the course of the film the story deals with a number of different situations involved in sharing the Gospel with others along with some of the reasons non-Christians have for not embracing it.  We meet a man so stuck on himself and his “perfect” life that he has no time for God or really much in the way of humanity.  We meet a woman with a tough, angry, liberal atheist veneer, but who is secretly looking for hope and love.  We meet a Muslim young woman from a very traditional family who has been a believer in secret for almost a year.  We meet a young woman who gives lip service to faith but who is really concerned with what she wants.  On and on the list goes.  Well, through this slate of characters what we are given is a chance to see how sharing and living the Gospel can play itself out in a number of different life situations, even, perhaps our own.

The fact is, as I just mentioned, that while the vast majority of Christians believe that sharing the Gospel is important for them to be doing, a similarly large percentage do not in fact share the Gospel.  Indeed, looking back at that survey, a full 60% of believers felt they had missed an opportunity to share the Gospel in the last few months.  Perhaps worse than that, a full 87% indicated that the reason they don’t share the Gospel is that they lack confidence in sharing their personal testimony.  However else you feel about the subject, I think we can agree this is a problem for the church.  Stories like the one told in the movie God’s Not Dead are encouraging and inspiring to be sure, but they don’t change the fact that we walk out of the theater not really feeling any more prepared or courageous than we did when we walked in.  God may not be dead, but we’re not at all sure we want to tell anyone about it, much less how to do it.

With all of this in mind, for the next few weeks and with the story of the movie fully in mind, I want to address some of the issues involved here.  If God’s not dead, who are you going to tell about it?  This morning we are going to talk about some of what has to happen before we go and share, the next couple of weeks we will take a look at some of the arguments and evidence involved in sharing, and at the end of the series I’m going to give us some pretty explicit encouragement to go out and do it.  The purpose of all of this won’t be to induce any more guilt than some of you already feel regarding the amount of time you spend sharing your faith, but rather to make sure you are equipped for the occasions when they do arise.

So then, what has to happen before we go and share?  Well, I’m going to give you the big idea for this morning right out of the gate.  Usually I’ll spend most of our time setting it up and then land on it at the end, but this morning I want to consciously wrap everything we’re going to talk about around it, so here it is.  Are you ready?  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.  See what I did there?  I made it rhyme so you can remember it.  You could even make a little rap out of it if you were hip like that.  But, since I’m not, let’s just say it together a couple of times: If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.

Ready and unafraid.  Those are two simple words, but they represent ideas much bigger than that.  Let’s start this morning with the idea of being ready.  Being ready to share our faith with someone else involves a number of different things, but the bottom line for us is that we are commanded to do it.  In a verse we have looked at two or three times this year already (and which you can find on the front of your bulletins), the apostle Peter, writing to Jesus followers in a cultural setting where their faith was tenuously tolerated as long as they kept it to themselves, commanded them to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

Now, that sounds good in theory, but how do we actually do this?  How can we be ready?  Let me walk you through five principles of being ready that come from Peter’s command so you can better wrap your minds around what he’s saying.  The first principle is to be committed.  There is a great difference between giving verbal affirmation (or perhaps hands raised in expected assent) to the importance of sharing the Gospel and actually being committed to doing so.  The idea is great in theory.  We all agree on that.  The question is: do you really want to see it happen?  Are you content for it to stay in the realm of theory, or are you willing to take part in the project?  Peter is making a command here and Jesus Himself made it a command, but you know as well as I do that commands in the Bible don’t always impact our lives like they should.  The real question here is this: if you’re not committed (and it’s okay to go ahead and be honest about that), why not?  You would do yourself a favor to reflect sometime on why that is.  Understanding the reason will help you overcome it.

The second principle is to be prepared.  I know, I know: Why is one of the principles for being ready “be prepared”?  Isn’t that just a synonym?  It is, but let me explain what I mean.  Peter said that we should always be prepared to make a defense for a reason for the hope that is in us.  If I asked you to give a reason for the hope in you, could you give it?  Why do you have hope?  Why do you follow Jesus?  Why do you bother with church?  Could you give me a reason that goes beyond mere personal preference?  Could you point to something that God has done in your life?  Being prepared here means knowing your stuff.  In God’s Not Dead, when Josh Wheaton was given the monumental task of defending the existence of God before a rabidly atheistic professor he spent a lot of time studying to make sure he knew his stuff to the fullest extent he could.  More than that, though, in personal conversations like with Martin Yip, the Chinese student, Josh was able to offer reasons for his personal hope.  If you are going to be ready to share the Gospel, you need to be prepared for the conversations you might have whether that means knowing the evidence and arguments (which is something I can help with) or simply being able to relate to someone else the things God has done in your life.  Indeed, if you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.

The third principle is to be wise.  Peter commands us here to be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks.  It takes a lot of wisdom to be able to do this well.  In Ecclesiastes 3, King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, argued that there is a time for everything.  There is a time to let our actions lead the way in sharing the Gospel with someone else.  But, there is also a time for words.  The wise person knows which is which.  We also need to use wisdom in knowing exactly what to share.  Different situations call for different apologetic approaches.  If someone is hurting and is angry at God about something, that’s probably not the time for a scholarly presentation on the evidence for design in creation.  It is time to offer the hope and comfort of God and to be a friend.  With wisdom’s leading we will be able to discern the nature of the person’s objections to the faith and tailor our message accordingly.

The fourth principle is to be humble.  Peter describes the thing we are to be defending as the hope that is in us.  It’s not the hope that we put there, or the hope that is somehow inherent to us.  It is the hope that is in us, suggesting that someone else put it there.  If you are a follower of Jesus, you are so not of your own power.  You didn’t come to that position all by yourself, you were called to it by the God who loves you without hesitations or conditions.  This understanding flows naturally from the definition of humility.  Humility is very simply honest self-assessment.  It means being aware of our strengths and weaknesses, being clear about what we do know and don’t know, and being honest about that.  Sometimes an honest admission of ignorance about a hard question will go a lot further than blowing smoke that proves false in the end.  If you’ll remember, when Josh was asked a question by Professor Radisson after his first presentation to which he didn’t know the answer, his response was: “I don’t know,” even though it made him look bad.  Rather than blowing smoke he went home, did his homework, and came back with an answer.  We must never forget that what we are sharing is not how great we are, but how great God is.  We have received a gift which we are offering, not from the position of expert, but from the position of fellow traveler.

The final principle here is to be confident.  We are to be humble because we didn’t put the hope that is in us there, but the fact is: it’s there.  It’s not going anywhere.  Nobody can take it away from us.  What we are proclaiming when we share the Gospel is the truth.  All the evidence points in our direction.  We have every reason to be totally confident in the things we proclaim.  Now, culturally speaking, such confidence is often confused with arrogance.  We live in a day in which doubt is fashionable.  Yet a world in which doubt reigns is a world in which nothing ultimately means anything.  Indeed, it’s only arrogant to have such confidence if the confidence is misplaced.  Ours isn’t.  Again, this may sound counter-cultural, but in one sense it is very much in line with culture.  We are embracing the spirit of doubt.  Our doubt is simply focused on…well…doubt.  The bottom line, though, is that if you are going to be ready, you need to have confidence in what you are doing.  Even a cursory reading of guys like Paul and John suggest that confidence is something which Christians should have in spades.  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.

The importance of being ready is hard to overstate.  Yet, if fear is gumming up the works, we’re never going to be ready.  And, as the results of the survey we talked about earlier along with numerous others suggest: fear is perhaps the biggest single impediment to believers’ sharing the Gospel.  We are generally terrified of the idea of talking about our faith with someone else.  Of what exactly are we afraid?  Well, lots of things.  We’re afraid of not knowing the answer to a question.  We’re afraid that some kind of persecution might result from our efforts (especially in work settings).  We’re afraid that a relationship might be jeopardized.  We’re afraid we’ll look silly.  We’re afraid they might accept Jesus as the result of our sharing and then what are we supposed to do with them?  And yet, if we are going to be faithful to the command of guys like Peter and Jesus, afraid is the last thing we can afford to be.  In fact, in verse immediately prior to the one I read for you just a minute ago (and which is also on the front of your bulletin), Peter takes this tendency head-on.  Look at 1 Peter 3:14: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake [in other words, even if the results of your efforts to share the Gospel aren’t what you hoped], you will be blessed.”  Why?  Because you’re being faithful to the command of Christ and that always brings a blessing.  What’s Peter’s advice instead of being afraid?  “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.”

Well, how do we do that?  How do we keep fear at bay?  I mean, it sounds good to say something like, “If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid,” but what does that look like out there when we walk out the back doors?  Like with the idea of being ready, let me give you five principles for being unafraid and then we’ll get out of here to put it all into practice.

The first principle is to not be surprised.  A little later in his letter Peter tells his readers to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”  Here’s the thing about stepping out and sharing the Gospel: every such attempt is always a direct assault against the powers of this world in whatever form they happen to take.  In God’s Not Dead, Josh’s defense of his faith proved to be an assault on the authority of Professor Radisson.  Well, when you make an assault against the ruling authorities of a place how does that usually get received?  Yeah, badly.  Professor Radisson threatens to put all his effort into derailing Josh’s plans to go to law school if he continues with his defense.  What do you think might happen to you and me if we are actively sharing our faith everywhere we go?  Maybe nothing.  But maybe something.  The point is: don’t be surprised.  When we confront the world with the Gospel we need not be surprised when we experience a confrontation.

The second principle is to not be afraid.  I know, I know: again with the repetition.  But hear me out.  Jesus’ advice to His followers was to fear the one who has power over the soul (that would be God), not the body.  While we should care for our bodies since they are a gift from God, what happens to them in an eternal sense is inconsequential because we’ll get new, better ones in the resurrection.  Of much greater concern than what happens to our bodies is our standing before the God who has authority over our souls.  Well, because there is nothing the various powers of this world can do to us that will have any impact on our standing before God, we can be bold in our witness.  Now, bold doesn’t mean unkind or offensive or hurtful.  Gospel boldness should be paired with Christ-like meekness.  Rather, if we have a fear, let us examine it.  If you are afraid to share your faith, of what exactly are you afraid?  Perhaps a loss of some kind.  Well, what kind of loss?  Material?  Physical?  Relational?  Material fears of loss usually come from trying to serve two masters and that never goes well.  We already ruled out the merit of physical fears.  For relational fears, a relevant question to ask is this: have I made an idol out of this relationship?  If in the process of humbly, gently, lovingly sharing the Gospel (if you lose a relationship because you were a jerk when sharing your faith, that’s your fault, not God’s) someone walks away from us, the problem is with them, not us.  Ultimately, whatever it is that we fear is something the enemy will use to his advantage.  The fearless foe is the hardest to defeat.

Principle three: don’t react.  If and when we face persecutions of various kinds, the best response is no response, or rather, a steady commitment to our mission of sharing the Gospel.  When we respond in kind we serve only to justify the abuse.  It may be a twisted justification, but it is a justification all the same.  Think again back to the scene when Professor Radisson gets in Josh’s face and threatens to derail his law school plans.  How did Josh respond?  He didn’t.  He internally set the frustration at the feet of the One who was chiefly offended, and kept at it.  His unreactive fearlessness in the face of threats confounded his foes.  So will it ours.

The fourth principle is that we must not stop sharing.  If we face pushback or persecution as a result of our efforts to share the Gospel, the goal of these is our silence.  If we give in and go silent, even if the persecutor faces justice in this life, he has won.  Whatever else happens, if we go silent, the enemy wins.  We are to be faithfully consistent in our witness regardless of the opposition we face.  Peter could speak to this directly.  When his life was threatened by the Jewish authorities for preaching the Gospel he responded that they could do whatever they wanted to him, but he had to obey God, not men.  A few years ago Dr. Eric Hedin, a Christian physics and astronomy professor at Ball State University in Indiana who well-liked by the students and has received numerous good reviews, taught a course called the Limits of Science in which he spoke favorably about intelligent design on the basis of the available scientific evidence.  The university was quickly threatened with lawsuits from atheist groups because they were now supposedly supporting religion at a public institution.  The university president responded by canceling the popular class and putting Dr. Hedin on what amounted to probation.  He responded by respectfully submitting to his bosses and then actively seeking out other places he could make the same case.  He did not let the persecution he faced scare him into silence.  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.  This is exactly what Dr. Hedin did.

The final principle here is pretty straightforward: don’t give up.  The challenge of sharing our faith is sometimes significant and the fruit fleeting.  The average person hears the Gospel seven or more times before embracing it.  It may be that you manage to catch everybody you meet on the third go-round and seem to have no impact.  Don’t give up.  The word of God is living and active.  It goes from Him, accomplishes its purpose, and never returns void.  If you are faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, you are having an impact on the world around you for the kingdom.  You are engaging your world for Christ.  Your labor is not in vain.  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.

The task of proclaiming the Gospel to the world around us is a stout one.  There’s simply no getting around that fact.  It will mean facing losses of various kinds.  It will mean living through uncomfortable seasons of life.  It very well might bring pain in this life, possibly significant pain.  And yet we keep at it because the alternative just isn’t good.  It’s to live in disobedience to what Jesus told us to do and that never goes well.  So if you don’t feel ready, then get to work preparing yourself.  Investigate the evidence—the next couple of weeks will help in that regard.  Consider your own journey with God and figure out how you can make it sharable with someone else.  Loosen your hold on the things of this world.  Face the challenges that lie ahead of you with confidence and boldness.  Lay aside whatever fears are trying to work in your heart and stand firm in the call God has worked in your life.  The results just might blow your mind.  In God’s Not Dead, Josh made a strong case for the faith before an audience of 100 of his peers and convinced some of them.  Billy Graham did what he did because a Sunday school teacher three generations before shared the Gospel with a student named Dwight Moody.  Who knows what your impact will be.  You won’t have it, though, unless you share.  If you’re going to share the Gospel, and you want to have it made, the way to go about it is ready and unafraid.