Tonight's topic is telling other people about Jesus. I don't know how you feel at the thought of that, but this week I've been phoning round and talking to some of you - and here are some of the concerns and questions you came up with:
How do you get started?
How do you turn conversations to it when no-one talks about anything 'spiritual' today?
What do you do for friends who've heard it all before?
I'm afraid of showing 'synthetic friendliness'.
I'm worried about hypocrisy.
I need confidence / courage.
I want people to know, but how do you do it without them thinking you're 'ramming it down their throats'?
Well, let's see what help God gives us in Colossians 4. And here's an introductory question to get us into it:
Who should do the work of evangelism?
'Evangelism' just means telling other people the gospel ('evangel' in the original language of the NT) – ie, telling other people the Bible's message about Jesus.
And you may already be thinking, 'But is this really relevant to me? After all, I'm not an evangelist like this guy Rico Tice who's speaking at our mission events in a few week's time. And I'm not one of those people with that Christian Midas touch of turning conversations to Jesus wherever they go. So does this really involve me?'
Which begs the question: who should do the work of evangelism? Whose responsibility is it? Well, look at Colossians 4.2-6. This was written by the apostle Paul – who was a highly able public speaker. And it was written to a group of newish Christians in a place called Colosse. Verse 2:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should. (vv2-4)
So that's Paul's responsibility: public preaching. And the word translated 'should' (end of v4) is a very strong one. It means it's a 'must', he ought to because God wants him to. But then look at v5. This is Paul speaking to the Colossians, who were just 'ordinary Christians', so this applies to all of us who are believers:
Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders [ie, non-Christian people]; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (v6)
And, literally, the end of v6 says, 'So that you may know how you should answer everyone' – the same strong word as in v4. Ie, the Colossians have a responsibility for evangelism too. And by extension, all Christians do.
So that's the introductory thing to notice from these verses. If you're a Christian, you share the responsibility for helping others know about Jesus. Some Christians (vv3-4) have the ability to speak for Jesus publicly - and they should do that. All Christians (vv5-6) have the ability to speak for Jesus in conversation, and we should all learn to get started at that, and then to get better at that. And I will never tire of recommending this book: Know & Tell the Gospel by John Chapman. I stayed with John in Australia during my sabbatical this summer, and he just oozes wisdom and encouragement in this whole area of knowing what to say and how to put it across.
OK, that's the 'bird's-eye view' of this passage – let's drop down lower and catch some detail. Just two main things to say:
First, WE SHOULD PRAY FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO SHARE THE GOSPEL (vv2-4)
Verse 2 again:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
Now that's about prayer in general, but because of tonight's topic and the focus of vv3 onwards, we're just going to think about prayer for evangelism. Paul asks them to pray two things for his evangelism, v3:
And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ [which was just another way of saying 'the gospel'], for which I am in chains.
So that's asking God to make the opportunity for us to share the gospel. Then v4:
Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should. (v4)
And that's asking God to help us take the opportunity – help us actually speak about Jesus when the chance comes.
And this is part of the answer to that need for confidence and courage that I flagged up at the start. God tells us to begin with prayer. Because ultimately, bringing people to faith in Jesus is his work – he just involves us as messengers. So prayer reminds me that God wants this to happen, and that I don't have to make it happen, and that I'm not on my own, but God is at work in the situation and in the person or people with whom I'm trying to share the gospel. And I find when I pray that God will make opportunities for me and that he'll help me take them that I go into situations with confidence.
Eg, a few weeks back I went to the hairdressers. I often have v5 in mind at times like that: 'Make the most of every opportunity.' So as I walked down to the hairdressers I prayed, 'Lord if you want me to say anything about you, please make it happen and please help me to speak.' Well, within two minutes he started talking about all the discussion in the news about Islam and he said, 'They all say Islam and Christianity are saying the same things, but they're really quite different aren't they?' Now what's that if its not an open door? And we had a long conversation - which is why I got a short haircut. I think mathematicians call that an 'inverse relation': 'length of hair equals 1 over the level of interest in the gospel.' If I appear in a month or so with a number one crew cut, you'll know we got onto something really heavy like predestination.
Now does that always happen? No. There are times when nothing happens. And there are times when negative reactions happen – sometimes big ones. Just look at the end of v3: Paul had had such a negative reaction from Jewish circles that he'd ended up in prison. Not everyone is open on every occasion. Verses 3-4 are not promising that. The point is: when I pray like this and opportunities do open up, it gives me real confidence and encouragement that God is at work, as I try to do my bit.
So will you join me over the next few weeks and pray regularly – maybe daily – that God would give you an opportunity to say something Christian for him that day? Then, can I encourage you to start or re-start or just carry on with praying for the non-Christian people around you with whom you'd like to share the gospel? I have just three folk on my mind right now. And with Carol services and Mission events approaching, it's not a bad idea to write down those names, look down the list of things to invite people to, and work out which would be good for which people. Then pray that God would open a door if he wants to. And then invite them and see what happens.
Inviting someone to hear the gospel from someone else is often the easiest way of getting going. It's certainly how I got going as a young Christian when I couldn't string two sentences together about the gospel, but I could say to friends, 'Would you like to come along with me to this event?' And I still find it one of the most natural, unstrained ways - even now I can string a few more words together myself.
But in that case, please don't forget to pray for the person who'll be speaking. A few years back, the speaker for an invitation event at Newcastle CU dropped out, so I stepped in at the last minute. And the CU committee took me into a side room to pray for me and this lovely girl prayed, 'O Lord, we pray you would help all the people listening tonight, because without your help, they'll never understand a word that Ian is saying.' And I think I knew what she meant! I think she was praying v4 for me.
So, let's pray for God to make opportunities for us. And let's pray for whoever's responsible for taking them – whether it's us doing the talking or someone else. Then,
Secondly, WE SHOULD RELATE WISELY TO THE NON-CHRISTIAN PEOPLE IN OUR LIVES (v5)
Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (v5)
By 'outsiders' Paul simply means people who've not yet put their faith in Jesus. And he's telling those of us who have that we should relate wisely to those who haven't - so that we help them to hear the gospel. Because that's their most urgent need. Our friends' and family members' most urgent need is not to pass the next set of exams or get a job or find a partner, but to be put right with God before they die and meet him as their Judge.
Can I put that directly to you if at the moment you're still on the outside of Christian faith, looking in? Your most urgent need in life is not any of the things uppermost in your mind right now. You're not ready to face those things in life - let alone to face death - until you've been put back into relationship with the God who made you through the death of his Son Jesus. And if you're unsure how that can happen to you, please take away a copy of this booklet The Choice We All Face – it's on the Welcome Desk and the piano down here.
But it's that very urgency about this whole matter that raises the fear I mentioned at the start: 'I want people to know, but how do you do it without them thinking you're 'ramming it down their throats'?'
I mentioned John Chapman's book Know & Tell the Gospel. He came to faith aged 16 and (quote), 'I embarked on a flurry of evangelistic activity. The family received the full blast and a small sermon was delivered at breakfast each day for months! Finally I remember my exasperated father saying one morning, 'You don't ever eat your breakfast at church do you? Then why must I always have church at breakfast?'' And John Chapman comments, 'It seems a reasonable statement as I look back on it some 30 years later, although at the time I thought it was a godless rejection of the gospel.'
Now no-one wants that sort of evangelism. Our non-Christian family and friends don't want it done to them. And those of us who are Christians don't want to do it to them, do we? But we do want to help them hear about Jesus. And that's why Paul balances being urgent ('Make the most of every opportunity') with being wise ('Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders'). And mini-sermons every day at breakfast is… unwise.
So how can we relate wisely to the non-Christian people in our lives?
Well, for a start, we need to relate to them. The longer you're a Christian and the more involved you become in church or CU, the easier it is to spend more time with Christian friends and less time with non-Christian friends. So there in the middle of the screen [please imagine the pictures] is 'Pete the pious', floating somewhere above the world, singing choruses with his Christian mates. But he'll never help a non-Christian to hear the gospel because he doesn't know any. So can I ask: do you? Do you need to spend more time with friends and neighbours and colleagues outside church? Do you need to say 'No' to something inside church or CU for the sake of spending better time with non-Christian people? (And I reckon that answers another of those fears I mentioned at the start: 'I'm afraid of showing 'synthetic friendliness'.' And it is synthetic if the only time I'm really taking an interest in someone is when there's a Christian event to invite them to.)
But then there's the other extreme on the left of that picture – Will the worldy. Will is very good at spending time with his non-Christian friends. He's out there with them (which is great) doing what they're doing (which is not so great). There he is knocking back a drink to show that you can be a Christian and still drink – which is true. But actually, quite often Will blows it by getting drunk. So he's out there with them, but he's no different. So his friends either don't know he's a Christian, or they know and think he's a hypocrite. So, like Pete, he doesn't help them to hear the gospel.
Pete and Will are unwise in different ways. Wisdom is Barbara the biblical over on the left of the picture. (Trust the girls to get it right.) Barbara remains thoroughly stuck in with her non-Christian friends and family, but she doesn't conform. She stands out by taking her cue from Jesus rather than the world. So, for example, she draws a line after a drink or two and sometimes she won't drink at all because she wants to stand out clearly for Christ. And sometimes she won't go into situations where she knows the pressures to conform will be too strong for her to handle.
But even Barbara still won't help anyone hear the gospel unless she's prepared to be known as a Christian. You can live a Christ-like life in your office or staff-room or classroom or wherever. And people will notice. But they won't know you're like that because of Jesus - unless you let them know. And that's where you have to say something.
First base in speaking for Jesus is simply letting people know we're Christians. So it may be that there's a circle of people you know who don't know you're a Christian. Well, think of a way to let them know. It may be mentioning that you go to church – 'What did you do at the weekend?' 'Oh, I went walking up at Rothbury on Saturday and then I was at church yesterday.' Maybe they'll pick up on that. 'Oh, I didn't know you went to church.' What will you say next? Think about it in advance! I know business people who keep a Bible openly in their office, and that prompts people to ask. I always used to leave my Bible openly in my room as a student and have church and CU stuff pinned on my notice board – again, to prompt questions. The trick is to think of a way of labelling yourself a Christian to see if people will ask you about it.
But what about another of those concerns I raised at the start: 'How do you turn conversations to it when no-one talks about anything 'spiritual' today?'' How do you get further than, 'I go to church'? Well, part of it is back to vv3-4. Pray. I admit I don't pray regularly enough for God to make opportunities; but when I do, they often happen with remarkable ease – eg, with the hairdresser. I didn't turn that conversation. He did. And I think that was an answer to prayer. So part of it is prayer. And part of it is in v6:
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (v6)
'Answer' implies you've just been asked a question. Or someone's just said something that you can follow with a bit of Christian content.
Eg, what if someone asks you, 'Why is it I've never seen you get drunk?' How will you answer a question like that in a way that points to the gospel? 'I don't like drinking,' might be true, but it doesn't point to the gospel. How about gathering your courage and saying, 'Because I'm a Christian'? That certainly points to Christ. And then they might say, What's that got to do with it?! I know plenty of Christians who get drunk… Take my friend Will…' How would you answer that in a way that moves you closer to the gospel? 'Well, as a Christian I want to live for Jesus and you can't live for someone and do something they dislike.' You never know what the next question (if any) will be. And can I say: the great thing about being asked a question is that you know you have permission to speak – you can't possibly be thought of as 'ramming it down peoples' throats' - because they've asked you to speak..
So, fish for questions; look out for openings to answer in a way that might lead to saying something about the heart of the gospel. And as you do that, bear in mind the two things that Paul mentions in v6:
First: 'Let your conversation be always full of grace'. In Colossians 1.6, he's said the gospel is a message of grace, ie, God's undeserved love. So I think he's saying: when these opportunities come, try to point to Jesus and his undeserved love. Because everyone we talk to believes we have to work our way into God's good books, and they'll assume we believe that, too, unless we make it very clear that we don't. Eg, I got talking to an elderly lady on a train and after a bit she said, 'I'm afraid it's too late for me to be getting into all this - I've been a rather bad girl, you see.' And I knew I had to get grace out onto the deck quickly. So I said something like, 'Well, Christians aren't good people, you know; they're forgiven bad people that God's working on.'
Second: 'Let your conversation be always… seasoned with salt…' Another eg: I sat next to someone else on a train a while ago. He works for a charity called Wateraid which provides 3rd world water supplies. We got talking and after a while he said, 'It's great working for an organisation that meets the most basic human need.' Now that's not a question, but it's an opening to say something in reply - like a question. So I said, 'But you don't.' And he said, 'What do you mean?' And I had permission to speak. And I said, 'Well, if this life was all there is, I'd agree. But if there's a God and a life after this one, which I believe, then there's an even bigger need to sort out.' And what I was doing there was what I think Paul means in v6 by 'Let your conversation be… seasoned with salt.' Salt is distinctive; salt stands out. Salt adds a bit of 'bite'. And when you introduce Christian truth into the conversation, it's like that.
So, I reckon turning conversations hangs on praying for opportunities plus being on the ball – looking out for questions/openings, and then trying to answer in such a way that moves you towards the heart of the gospel in some way - ie, towards Jesus and his death and his resurrection.
And part of the reason for having evangelistic events like Tavern and Food for Thought and Carols and Rico Tice is that it makes it easier for conversations to turn to Christian things. It's a very natural thing to ask someone who's come along with you, 'What did you think of what he said?' And, God-willing, you can have some conversation about things that really matter.
So, what have we seen? Colossians 4 tells us this is something for all of us: in our different ways, with our different abilities, we're all responsible in this team effort to tell others about Jesus. And that we should pray for opportunities to share the gospel; and that we should relate wisely to the non-Christian people in our lives. So let me give you a minute or two to answer these two questions to yourself:
What one thing has God shown you about himself?
What one thing will you do in response?