The Work of an Evangelist
A sermon on 2 Timothy 4:1-5 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 October 2007
In the face of a plurality of spiritualities, Jesus calls us to respectfully but urgently and persistently bear witness to the good news.
Many of us have at some time been part of churches or other Christian groups where we were constantly exhorted to take every opportunity to evangelise - to be telling other people that they needed to be saved and born again and explaining to them how to do so by putting their faith in Christ. In my late teens I was involved in a group at Monash University called Student Life, and the whole focus of our group was evangelising other students using a little leaflet called the Four Spiritual Laws. We had training sessions on how to use the booklet to lead someone to faith in Christ, and we would go out in pairs, a bit like Mormons but without the neat haircuts and ties, and target unsuspecting people who were sitting alone around the campus. Most of what I was doing then makes me cringe now. Actually, I think it was making me cringe then too, but I knew of no other way and I was convinced that I had to do it to be a proper follower of Jesus.
Some of you won’t have been involved in anything quite that extreme, but many of you will still have been urged by preachers and pastors to be more active in sharing the good news with others, and many of you will have often felt that you probably aren’t doing enough about evangelism. Perhaps you have uncomfortable memories of preachers expounding the passage we heard tonight from Paul’s letter to Timothy:
I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. ... Do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Now, of course, it is easy to look back on past horror stories and just be thankful that we’ve moved on, but what have we moved on to? How do we respond to passages like this in our Bibles now? What does “doing the work of an evangelist” mean to us now and how do we live it out?
Of the two pastors here, I’m not sure that I’m the best one to be tackling this topic. Alan Marr, our Baptist Archbishop, told me recently that one long serving Baptist minister had told him that Jill Friebel was the best evangelist he had ever come across. I don’t have a history of agreeing with that particular minister very often, but I did agree with him on that one. And a number of you will agree with that too, because a number of you found your way into faith, or back into faith, through Jill’s enthusiastic convincing, encouraging and proclaiming. So perhaps Jill should be doing this. But on the other hand, I think one of the reasons she is so good is that it comes rather naturally to her. It is not put on and forced. She’s passionate about people, and she’s passionate about Jesus, and those two passions kind of bump into each other and it just bubbles out all over the place. And because she’s so natural about it, it is probably not something she thinks about as a method or a theory or a program or anything like that that she could describe and teach to us. She’s just being Jill, enthusing contagiously about the things that she’s passionate about. So maybe I’ve got just as much chance of saying something useful about it, and even if I don’t, I’m the one who’s rostered to preach so I’m going to have to give it my best shot!
It seems to me that one of the things that the Apostle Paul says in this passage is a good description of the social climate we live in, and a significant part of the mental block that many of us have when it comes to the idea of evangelism. He says:
the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
Now Paul is putting a fairly negative spin on it there, but it seems to me that the enormous curiosity and even hunger for spirituality that we see all around us has much in common with what he is describing. I tend to view it a bit more favourably than Paul, but I think I get where he is coming from. The description of “itching ears” need not be heard as a bad thing. It simply means that people want to hear something. They are curious and eager to hear something that will speak a word of hope and direction for where they are at. They are hungry to hear a message that will bring some spirit back into the vacuous materialism and relentless productivity of modern life. A generation or so back, people with itching ears would have naturally turned to the Church as the place where they expected that need to be met, but now it seems that the Church is the last place they think to look. And it’s hard to blame them. I know that the sort of answers I was trying to ram down people’s throats when I was nineteen would have convinced most of the recipients that there was no real spiritual food where that came from.
But the hunger is real, and people have found plenty of other ways to begin feeding it. People find their way to various teachers, to courses, to groups. There is a wondrous smorgasbord of spiritual options out there, almost all with much that is worthwhile to offer. Whatever people are looking for, they can probably find something that appeals.
For us, one of the difficulties of all this is that we don’t want to come across as arrogant and dismissive of what anyone else has found to be helpful and suitable for them. We want to be respectful of other people’s beliefs and practices. We’ve seen too many zealous evangelists treat the whole thing like it was a cut-throat competition for a bigger share of the spiritual marketplace, and we don’t want to be so belligerent. If people are picking a bit of this and a bit of that and packaging it up into their own personal religion, well each to their own and let’s not put one another down. We’re for tolerance. Which makes us rather wary of evangelism, because it is often presented as though it requires us to rebuke others for their false beliefs, convince them of the wrongness of those beliefs, and urge them to adopt our Christian beliefs instead. But need it be like that? Perhaps not.
When Paul uses the word rebuke here, there is nothing to say that he means telling people off for what they believe. Rebuking happens over what people do. If people behave in ways that are causing needless damage to other people, or to community or to the environment, then rebuking may be in order. Sometimes we need to stand up and say “those actions cannot be allowed to go unchallenged”. The work of an evangelist is to bear witness to an alternative. Most of the time, with most people, we won’t need to be rebuking anything. We just share what is going on in our own lives. We bear witness to what we have seen and experienced. Evangelism is not about having all the answers, or being able to persuade anybody of anything. It is just about sharing openly about what is happening in our own lives. That’s why Jill is so natural about it. She doesn’t feel the need to dismantle anybody else’s answers; she simply bubbles over enthusiastically about what she is experiencing of God in her own life, and her enthusiasm is contagious. You don’t have to persuade anybody. That’s not what you are called to do. Persuading people is the Holy Spirit’s job. All you are called to do is speak about what happens for you and what you make of it. When Paul says “be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”, he is not saying you have to relentlessly force the topic regardless of what is going on. Instead he is saying that there is no point trying to work out whether this is a good time or a bad time - don’t try to be all strategic. Just bear witness naturally by talking about this aspect of your experience as freely and naturally as you would talk about any other aspect of your experience. Don’t worry about whether the time is right for the message to be effective. You’re not called to be effective; you are called to be faithful. Producing effects is the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours.
And you also don’t have to worry about whether you can answer all the questions or give a coherent explanation of the message. That’s not your job either. That is our job as a group, as the church. That is what our catechumenate program is for. That is the place where those whose interest has been aroused can ask questions and together we can explore the answers and what it looks like to live them out. For each of us as individuals, all we have to bear witness to is what matters to us and what we are experiencing of God and grace and community and hope. And most importantly, we are not called to just talk about it, but to allow people to witness us living it. People will only respond with interest and curiosity to your words if they see them to be coming from a lived reality.
I think much of our angst about evangelism is that we have been made to think that God is asking far more of us than we could possibly deliver. But that is not the God made known in Christ. The God made known in Christ is not asking anything more of you than that you be true to your own experience of his love and grace, and that you pass it on in your normal everyday conversations and in the living out of love and grace in your dealings with whoever you meet.