The Mission Of The Church

Let me begin by asking you to think about two organisations. One is the RAC: the Royal Automobile Club. The other is the RNLI: the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. Just give a thought to this question: how are those two organisations different? I guess I'd say that the biggest difference between them is: who they exist for. The RAC exists primarily for the benefit of its members. It's a club. So if you're not one of them, they won't do anything for you. Whereas the lifeboat institute exists primarily for its non-members. It's there for the outsider. It's not a club. It's a rescue service. And if you and I are believers, we too belong to an organisation - the church - that exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members, or as verse 5 of tonight's passage says, for the 'outsiders':

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; 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. (v5-6)

The outsiders are the people outside the Christian faith. The people still on the wrong side of God - and destined to stay that way for eternity if nothing changes. And our mission, if we're Christians, is to tell them about God and how to be put right again, through Jesus. We are also not a club, but a rescue service. And we're told to make the most of every opportunity. And I guess what little I've said so far leaves all of us here tonight feeling uncomfortable. If you're not yet a Christian you may well feel uncomfortable at the thought that Christians might be after you with their message. You may have suspected that was the case but now the Bible has confirmed your suspicions: they are. But it leaves us Christians feeling even more uncomfortable. Because we haven't made the most of every opportunity. We've ducked the opportunity, we've messed up the opportunity, we've failed to spot the opportunity - we can't come near to saying we've made the most of it. At least, I can't and I'm assuming none of can. So Australian evangelist John Chapman has put it like this: 'When it comes to evangelism, the Christian and the non-Christian are agreed on one thing: they both try to avoid it happening' But that is our mission. And in their heart of hearts, healthy Christians do actually want to be involved. Sometimes it's fear that holds us back: fear of what people might think, or of putting them off, or of not knowing what to say. And sometimes it's past failures that hold us back. Maybe we feel we've said too much. Maybe the problem is that as yet we've said nothing at all. Either way, we don't know where to go from here. So let's turn for help to these five verses at the end of Paul's letter to the Colossians. 3 headings: First, EVANGELISTIC FOCUS; secondly, EVANGELISTIC PRAYER; and thirdly, EVANGELISTIC CONVERSATION And I ought to say that 'evangel' is from the Greek word for 'gospel' ie, 'good news'. So evangelistic simply means 'to do with the gospel', to do with the good news of Jesus. And evangelism is simply the business of trying to communicate the gospel to someone who isn't a Christian. First, EVANGELISTIC FOCUS (v 2) If we're going to be useful to God in evangelism, we first need to be focussed on evangelism. And what will make us focussed is our prayer-lives:

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (v2)

I was listening to a bit of Wimbledon at the beginning of the week: Sampras was serving and there was some humorous moment and the crowd laughed. And Sampras just waited for things to settle down and as he did so one commentator said to the other, 'He's a study in concentration, this man; he didn't even register a smile at that.' To which the other commentator said, 'Yes. These players are utterly, utterly focussed.' That's the word they always use about the sprinter Linford Christie - I heard one commentator say: 'He goes into a world of his own before races.' And to be useful in evangelism, we need spiritual focus. With all life's distractions and demands, we need to concentrate on our mission. We need to live in the real world of spiritual realities. So we're told:

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (v2)

And I have to say: the days I live most purposefully for the Lord are the days when I've made good time to pray. When I've had my 'Quiet Time' or whatever you like to call it. It gives me focus. It reminds me that the aim of today is not just to get through another day, but v5, to be a missionary in God's world. 'Devote yourselves to prayer,' says Paul, 'Being watchful.' Which means being alert to spiritual realities. Be watchful. It's the word Jesus used when he talked about his coming back again, to wind up history and bring on the judgement. He said this:

No-one knows about that day or hour As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen to them until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (Matthew 24.36-42)

Be watchful. Because that's the ultimate spiritual reality. The coming again of Jesus; the end of history; the judgement. And we need to ask ourselves whether we really believe that. Because only conviction on that will move us to try to take the gospel to others while there's still time for changing sides. Every day on Tyneside people are behaving as in the days of Noah. Behaving as if there was no God and no judgement. Eating and drinking, and getting GCSE's so they can get A-levels so they can get to university so they can get jobs so they can eat and drink in better style in bigger houses. Marrying and giving in marriage, hoping, dating, wedding, settling, multiplying and launching children onto the same treadmill. As if there was no God and no judgement.29. They're not living in the real world. I heard on the radio the other day an interview with a guy who'd been diagnosed with cancer and successfully treated. There was no sign of the disease any more. And he said to the interviewer, 'You know, for a while there, I really thought my days were numbered.' Do you see what a ridiculous thing that is to say? 'I thought my days were numbered but after chemotherapy I'm immortal again.' He's not living in the real world. (And medicine is one of the great straws our culture clutches at to avoid facing the real world). But what about us Christians? Are we any better? If we're not engaged in evangelism, we are behaving just like them. As if there was no God and no judgement. And we need to be told: Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful of spiritual realities. We need to live in the real world of heaven and hell, and not merely the world of Wimbledon and work.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

Just turn back to Colossians 1.12. Paul is telling them what he's praying for them, and in chapter 1 verse 12 he says he's asking God that as Christian they'll be:

giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light [ie, heaven]. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Knowing the future will keep us focussed. So will having a good handle on what the Lord has done for us - which is what Colossians 1.12-14 are about. It's when we really have a handle on what God has done for us that we really get on with evangelism. It's the overflow of where we stand personally with the Lord. And if we have to admit there's not much overflow, then we need to minister the gospel to ourselves again before we think to tell others. 'Restore to me the joy of your salvation,' prayed David in the Psalm (51.12-13), ' Then I will teach sinners your ways.' That's the order, isn't it? No joy, no thankfulness, then: pretty much no evangelism.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

So, a few questions. What does your evangelism tell you about your spiritual health? And what does your spiritual health need you to do? Most of us live at increasingly high speed and are spiritually malnourished as a result. Maybe we need to resolve again, or for the first time, to have a 'Quiet Time', over the Bible and in prayer, each day. Maybe the summer is our God-given chance to rework the important things into our timetables. Our souls need focussing and feeding - or there will be no overflow in evangelism. Secondly, EVANGELISTIC PRAYER (vv 3-4) Paul moves on to specific things that he encourages people to pray for their evangelism. But before we look at them, just take a moment to answer to yourself this question: Are you regularly praying for someone who's not a Christian? Verse 3:

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. (vv3-4)

Notice he doesn't just say, 'And pray for us.' He says, 'And pray for us, too.' Which must mean that Paul expected them to be involved in evangelism of their own, and to be praying for evangelism of their own. And he says, 'Oh, and pray for our evangelism at this end, too.' In some churches, there's no prayer for gospel work elsewhere. In others, people feel they've 'done their bit' if they've given a bit and prayed a bit for an overseas missionary, or for the staff of the church. They're like a crowd at a football match, cheering on the few 'professionals' who are actually doing the work, but not actually on the pitch themselves. And Paul says: neither of those scenarios will do. If you're a Christian, you're a missionary. So:

Devote yourselves to prayer [get on with the job at your end]... And pray for us, too... [as we get on with it at our end] (v2-3)

So what should we be praying, if we want to be used by God in evangelism? What can we learn from the requests that Paul makes for his own evangelism? Well for a start, we should ask God to make opportunities for us to share the gospel:

Pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message... (v3)

I think we're often defeated before we've begun. 'They won't be interested,' we think to ourselves. Or, 'They won't want to come,' if it's an invitation to something. And Paul says: Pray that God will open a door of opportunity for you. Have you noticed in life that there's a link between prayer and things happening? I was coming back on the train from King's Cross a few weeks ago. I'd been at a meeting about student evangelism. I'd been in so many Christian meetings that week I couldn't remember what a non-Christian looked like. So as I got onto the train I prayed for an opportunity to talk to someone about Christian things. My reserved seat was next to a father and daughter who'd come down from Darlington for a University of London open day. We got chatting, and I was silently praying, 'Lord I am willing to talk about you; please open an opportunity where they're willing to talk and listen.' We were soon onto politics. That was a good sign, because it's one of the two things you're not supposed to talk about if you're British, the other being religion. I just asked them questions about what they thought was wrong with society and they talked and talked. Peterborough came and went; still nothing explicitly Christian had been said. They then asked me what I thought was wrong. I said I thought human nature was the problem. And I started saying why I didn't think the problem was any of the things they'd said was the problem. Grantham came and went, we talked some more, with me praying quietly for an opportunity to open. And suddenly the man stopped what he was saying and said, 'So what are you, then?' So I innocently said, 'What do you mean, 'What am I?'' And he said, 'Well, are you one of those' and didn't finish the sentence - presumably for fear of offending me. 'Religious weirdo's?' I said, to put him out of his misery. 'Well, I'm a Christian anyway.' To which the daughter said, 'Oh. I was thinking you must be one of those counsellors because you're obviously quite good at talking to old people.' (Dad didn't look too chuffed by that comment). And from Doncaster to Darlington we were on the central truths of Christianity all the way. I wondered at the end how to follow it up. Stupidly I didn't have a copy of a Gospel or an evangelistic booklet to give them. (Memo: all of us should carry a copy of a Gospel and an evangelistic booklet). So I said, 'Do you ever come to Newcastle?' It was a long-shot, but I wondered whether they might make it to JPC some time ( I at least had a JPC card to give them). Do you know what he said? 'My wife has to come to the Jesmond Clinic regularly - sometimes we have to stay weekends.'

Pray that God may open a door for our message. (v3)

It doesn't always happen like that. But I've been encouraged preparing this to think that I could have told several stories like that from just recently. Sometimes, it's just a snatch of conversation, just something. Last time I came up on the train, I didn't want to talk to anyone. I had work to do. The train broke down, we were transferred to a very crowded one, I sat down at a table, a man started speaking to me. I realised work was a dead loss. I prayed for opportunity. He talked and talked and talked. He works for Wateraid, a charity that supplies water equipment in the 3rd World. I said a few gospel things, but it was a very different opportunity. So, let's ask God to make opportunities. And then let's ask him to help us take them. Verse 4:

Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should.

Verse 3: pray for God to open the door. Verse 4: pray for me to open my mouth. We need to pray that we'll take opportunities that we're given. I guess most of us know what it is to see an opportunity and hesitate ('This is it. If I launch out now, there's no going back. I don't know what they'll think or what they'll say. This is it.'). And at that point, we need boldness just to get on and say it, whatever it is. And we should pray for that. Because it's not natural. It's supernatural. In Acts 4.23-31, there's the account of a prayer meeting where the early church prays this: 'Lord, enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.' And it says, 'They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.' That's what I need. Supernatural boldness beyond my natural timidity (see also 2 Timothy 1.7). And Paul says: pray for that. Evangelism is part conviction and part courage. We need conviction about what we're saying. We need to have thought it out, thought how to explain things, answered our own doubts and anticipated the questions and objections of others. And if you've not done that, please, please buy and read John Chapman's book 'Know & Tell the Gospel.' We will not be bold if we are not convinced. It takes preparation - and ongoing preparation. John Chapman keeps saying, 'Keep training yourselfThe first fifty years are the hardest.' It's part conviction. But after that, it seems I to me it's 95% courage. And we need to pray for that. Now I've applied vv3-4 to all of us. As Paul wrote, they applied to him and his fellow- 'full-time' preachers. So, have I handled the Bible properly? Or have I laid on all of us an obligation that is just for the full-time preacher? What's the difference between the full-time preacher and other Christians? Well vv5 and 6 are about all Christians. We are all called to obey vv5 and 6. So the difference is not whether we evangelise, but how we evangelise. Not all of us are called on to preach at Invitation Services or University Missions. But we are all called upon to take the opportunities God gives us in day to day conversation (v5), and to try to answer the questions that come our way (v6). Perhaps I should add that full-timers also have responsibility for structuring the life of the local church so that the whole thing is evangelistic, and that needs to be in our prayers right now. There's an encouraging trickle coming to Just Looking groups and Invitation services, some coming to faith. But I think it's fair to say that we're far from well-structured for the sake of the many friends and neighbours and work-mates that we ought to be sharing the gospel with. So let's pray about that, and discuss it. So, evangelistic prayer. Will you pray those two things regularly in your own Quiet time: that God would make opportunities for you to speak, and that he would help you take them? And see what he does. Thirdly, EVANGELISTIC CONVERSATION (vv 5-6) Have a breather by answering these questions: When was the last time you had an opportunity to say something about the gospel in conversation? What if anything did you say? How do you think you did? Verse 5:

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; 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. (v5-6)

What is our goal for the outsider? I don't mean that to sound impersonal or unloving. I don't regard my non-Christian friends or family members as targets. Quite the opposite: being clear about my goal will help me love them and safeguard me from being unloving. My goal for the non-Christian person is: positively, that they hear and understand the gospel; and negatively, that I cause them no avoidable offence by my manner. Can I say: the gospel itself is offensive and there is nothing I can do about that if I want to be faithful to the Lord. A family member once said to me in a conversation, 'But you must believe that people are basically good, deep down, surely?' And I caused offence by saying, 'No, I believe that people are basically evil deep down, and that's the whole problem.' There's nothing I can do about the offensiveness of the content of the gospel - except be unfaithful to the gospel. God help us to be faithful. But I don't want to put anyone off by my manner, by saying too much or too soon, or too forcefully. I want to be sensitive. But I also need wisdom to know when what I call my sensitivity is really my cowardice. Am I really worried for them or for me? Well, that's the goal: that the non-Christian hears and understands the gospel, and that I cause no avoidable offence. And we're told:

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (v5)

For a start, that assumes that we'll actually be among the outsiders. Churches and school or university Christian Unions can be full of believers with very few strong links of friendship to unbelievers. And the longer you're around them, the more responsibilities you can pick up and the more out of touch with outsiders you get. Especially on the staff. For a number of us - staff and non-staff - I guess we need to ditch some church time and ditch some church commitments and redress the balance of our lives in that respect. For example, if you found there was no-one you could naturally invite to the Christmas Carol services last year, ask yourself this question: how, in the next six months, will you try to make friends so that the same thing doesn't happen next Christmas? Then three brief things to end with: Be urgent. 'Make the most of every opportunity.' Does that mean I should evangelise all the time, at every possible moment? Should I treat everyone around me like you get treated by the street preachers who bellow at you in Northumberland Street? No. Verses 5 and 6 are talking about taking clear opportunities that come up. Something comes up - like my barber asked whether I believed in ghosts. Well, where do you go from there so as to get towards some part of the gospel? I did a pretty bad job on that occasion. If I'd had my wits about me I could have said I certainly believed in life after death and got onto the resurrection of Jesus. However, wit was missing and I floundered. I said something Christian, but it didn't get us to Jesus and central Christian truths. Making the most of every opportunity means spotting where you can say something Christian, and seeing where it leads. Sometimes it lasts you from Doncaster to Darlington. Sometimes it's a few minutes and they change the subject. Often it's like verbal scrabble. You can't explain the whole gospel in a monologue, but you can chip in some Christian truths. Then, be loving: 'Let your conversation be always full of grace.' If 'be urgent' brings out fears of the Northumberland Street bellowing style, here's the balancing thing. Be loving. It's no good if I simply get the gospel off my chest - which the Northumberland Street bellowers certainly do. Remember the goal: not merely that I get something said, but that the other person hears and understands. And people don't hear when they don't want to hear. So if I'm gracious, I will be as sensitive as I can be to whether the person I'm thinking about wants to talk about Christian things. If I make an opening comment and they don't bite, fair enough. Back to the weather. If they bite, and then after five minutes show they clearly want to change the subject, fair enough. It would be unloving to pursue the matter when I no longer 'have permission' to. And if we're praying along the lines of vv3 and 4, we can relax. God open opportunities in his time. Sometimes a conversation goes somewhere; sometimes it doesn't. The hardest to get right is the long-term job of witnessing to close friends or family. I think that needs a sermon of its own and would rather say nothing than say something glib right now. Then, 'be salty': let your conversation be seasoned with salt. What does that mean? Maybe it means, 'Don't be bland.' The gospel is not bland. Or maybe it's like Jesus' saying 'You are the salt of the earth' (Matthew 5.13). Salt: as in preservative. Salt: as in combatting decay. Salt: as in contradicting what's around. So, for example, the Wateraid man on the train said, 'It's wonderful to work for an organisation that's meeting the most basic human need of all.' And I said, 'But your not.' It was salty. And it got us talking about life after death. Or, that family member I mentioned said, 'Surely you believe people are basically good,' and I said, 'No. I believe we're basically evil.' It was salty. But two hours later, she'd agreed with me. Or another example. People asked me what I thought of the film, The English Patient. My stock reply was: 'Isn't it striking that the film that won all the Oscars was an adultery story?' Salty. Because there's a whole raft of Christian truth hiding behind that comment, waiting to be picked up on. None of those comments contained or led to the whole gospel. That hardly ever happens in conversation. But they hit the conversational taste buds. They combat truth-decay. And we need courage just to say those kind of things. It's often the salt that opens the wound. Evangelistic conversation. Can I simply encourage you: when you see an opportunity, go for it. Pray, ignore the feeling in the pit of your stomach and go for it. With love. But with boldness. Well, that's the mission of the church (ie, all Christians) as I understand it from these verses. Let me end with this. At the moment, Peter and Elspeth Gray, two of our congregation, are preparing to go as missionaries to Islamic North Africa. They've been studying the Bible hard. They've been choosing training and jobs that will best place them for witness in that culture. They're actively looking for support and committed prayer. Which begs a question of all of us they'll leave behind as missionaries here on Tyneside: Are we taking our mission as seriously as they are taking theirs?

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