Have you ever had someone be really unkind to you and then expect you to listen to what they had to say? I suspect you weren’t quite as interested at that point as they wanted you to be. There’s a lesson here when it comes to sharing our faith. As we continue in our series, Tell Someone, instead of turning to tips and tricks for effective evangelism, we’re taking a pause to talk about something we have to have in place before we start doing it (and I’m not talking about prayer). What is this thing? Read on to find out.
Live Like It’s True
In a headline that grabbed not a little attention a couple of weeks ago, the Gallup polling organization released a survey on religious participation in the United States. They found that for the first time since the organization began tracking this particular bit of data in 1937, church membership had fallen below 50% of the population. In other words, for the first time…perhaps in our entire history…less than half of the country reports being a member of a church. The problem runs deeper than just that, though. These folks who are leaving behind their church membership are overwhelmingly not just leaving that behind, they are abandoning the Christian faith entirely.
This perhaps prompts a rather obvious question on the part of those who do still count church membership—or at least participation—as something worthwhile: Why? What is causing them to do this? Well, there are a whole lot of cultural elements playing into this trend, but one thing that is fairly consistent across the data collected is the leavers reported some kind of a bad church experience as the reason for their departure. Many of these bad church experiences were directly connected to someone in their former church environment behaving in a way that was, in their mind at least, out of sync with the example of Jesus.
In the last few years there have been some incredibly high-profile departures from the Christian faith. There have also been some folks who never formally departed, but whom many Christians wish they had because of the damage to the church’s image in the culture wrought by the revelation of their enormous character flaws and sin struggles. Publicly, noisily leaving the faith has become a way to obtain an instant, if short-lived, celebrity status—at least on social media. I don’t say all of this to disturb you, but rather to simply help you understand a bit better the cultural context in which we are trying to tell someone else about our faith.
Speaking of that, this week finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Tell Someone. For the past few weeks, and with a couple more to go, we have been talking about how to share our faith with another person. As we said we back on the first week of the series, this is all the natural next step once we have a better understanding of what it is we believe. When you believe something and are passionate about it, you naturally share it with someone else. The idea of evangelism, though, of sharing with someone else about our faith in Jesus, is too often a scary one. We know we should do it, but actually following through on that is enough to make some of us want to break out in hives. The goal of this series has been to leave you not simply knowing that you should tell someone about what you believe, but feeling more comfortable and prepared to do it than you ever have before.
Along the way we have clarified exactly what our job is when it comes to evangelism (to connect other people to Jesus), we have talked about where our efforts should even begin (with prayer), and we have talked about what our basic message should be (a simple one of confession and belief). Now, in a normal conversation about evangelism, this is about the point where I would start offering you some tips and tricks on how to share your faith. We would talk through some methods and I might even make you practice in groups. Well, this isn’t a normal conversation about evangelism. This morning, before we go any further in this journey, I want to pause for a minute and talk about something pretty important that too often gets ignored.
Let me set it up like this: Have you ever been to a store where salesmen are how you’ll make your purchase? It could have been a furniture store or an appliance store or a car dealership or something else along those lines. Have you ever been somewhere like that and had a salesman completely ignore you at first because it didn’t look to him like you were going to buy anything? Later, then, when you actually went to ask a question that indicated genuine interest, he began to lay it on pretty thick. Lisa and I have experienced that a few times over the years. It’s probably because we looked young and poor (I don’t get that as much from salesmen anymore…she, on the other hand, still does). If you were in that situation, how willing were you to listen to the sales pitch after being ignored at first? Probably not terribly interested at all. You may have even had a little fun and strung him along for a while just so you could drop him at the last minute. The point is: Because of the character he demonstrated toward you, you really didn’t have any interest in what he had to say. There’s something to that.
Well, this morning we are going to go yet again to some words from the apostle Paul. This time we are going to be in his letter to the church in ancient Colossae. Colossae was a pretty wealthy city located on an important trade route. Colossae was not one of the churches Paul planted personally, but he nonetheless cared deeply about the believers there. He cared enough that when he was in Rome under house arrest near the end of his life, they were one of the groups of people on his mind. The letter begins with one of the highest and most glorious pictures of Jesus you’ll find anywhere in the New Testament. The rest of the letter is essentially a set of instructions on how Jesus’ followers should be living in light of who He is.
If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way with me to Colossians 3. Starting here, Paul gets really specific with the kind of lifestyle Jesus followers should be pursuing. Look at this with me starting right at the beginning of the chapter. “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Does that make sense to you? Paul is basically saying this: If you are a Jesus follower, live like it. He uses a few more words than that. Look at this again. If you have been raised with Christ. One of the images Paul consistently uses in his writings is that followers of Jesus have life because we have spiritually participated in His resurrection from the dead. He rose and has eternal life for it. If we are a part of Him, then we rose with Him and have the same eternal life He does. It may not have happened literally, but the spiritual reality here is just as real. If we are going to do this, our minds are going to play an important role. What we believe affects our behavior. If our efforts are focused in the direction of the things of this world, our beliefs and behaviors are going to follow suit. The opposite is equally true. In Christ, our whole life is tied up in His death, resurrection, and eventual glorification.
Because of that, Paul says, we need to make a clean and permanent break with the ways of our pre-Christ past. Stay with me in the text at v. 5: “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature.” If you died in Christ and now share in His resurrection, His death was for your sin. Don’t do the stuff He died to free you from. “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.” That’s a pretty standard list of sins from Paul, although that last one should give us pause. Have you ever been guilty of greed? That was an act of idolatry—you were worshiping the thing for which you were greedy. We may not bow down to statutes like our ancient forebears did, but that doesn’t mean idolatry is any less a part of our stories today. And, if you’ll remember from your Old Testament history, God’s really not a fan of idolatry.
“Because of these, God’s wrath is coming upon the disobedient, and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. But now, put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator.” Put those things away, Paul says. Put them away and don’t pull them back out again. There’s no life to be found there. That may be who you were, but in Christ you’re not that person anymore. As we saw in his letter to the Corinthian believers a couple of weeks ago, in Christ you are a new creation. The old is gone. Sinning in Christ is like a freed prisoner going back to spend time in his old cell because slavery is easier than freedom. Don’t do that, Paul says. And don’t think this is something that affects some folks more than others. Verse 11: “In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.”
Okay, but what are we supposed to do instead? Paul is glad you asked. Let’s keep right on rolling into v.12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved…” Pause there a minute. Do you think of yourself in those terms? If you are in Christ, those are the terms in which God thinks of you. You are chosen—you’re there on purpose. You are holy—you’re different from and morally superior to the folks of this world. And you are dearly loved. Because of all that: “put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive.”
Now, come on, can you think of a more countercultural set of values than that. More and more today, even in the church, we are told we need to be strong. We need to fight for ourselves and our rights. We need to fight for others. We need to hold the oppressors accountable. We need to achieve victory. And make no mistake: Strength like that attracts a following. But only two kinds: the cowardly and the cruel. Neither of those have any place in the kingdom of God. What we are called to in Christ is something radically different. It is a strength, but of a sharply different kind. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness require far, far more strength than anger and hatred. They are also far, far more attractive to the broken and the hurting; to the lost and the left outs. Why do you think so many people turn from the church and toward one non-Christian community or another? Because that non-Christian community gave them the love and acceptance they desperately needed when the church only gave them shame and judgment. This does not, by the way, mean we back off from the moral demands of the Christian life so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It means we give up judgmentalism and embrace in its place a loving accountability.
That love thing really is the key. “Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” If we are united in love, we will be united indeed. “And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Are you with Paul here? Roll those words around in your mind a bit. Imagine a community marked by love and wisdom. Imagine a community characterized by solid teaching and accountability, but with a constant eye toward worship and praise. Imagine a community that does nothing but gratefully glorify the name of Jesus. Does that sound like a community of which you’d like to be a part? Well, a big part of what made the church so attractive and explode with growth in its earliest centuries was the fact that they got this kind of stuff right. The culture they were in didn’t want anything to do with their message at first. But they saw their lifestyle and suddenly were willing to listen to their words. Then the message was shared with listening ears and lives, families, communities, the whole world was transformed.
Pretty good story, right? But what does any of this have to do with our telling someone else about our faith? I mean, these words really don’t have anything to do with evangelism. Oh, but they do. Here’s why: If you’re going to share the Gospel well, you have to live like it’s true.
The Gospel promises freedom from sin. If we live sin-pocked lives, who’s going to want to buy what we are selling? The Gospel promises transformational love. If we are hateful toward those who live lives filled with sin (as everyone does apart from Jesus), why would they be interested in what we have to say? The Gospel promises unity among diversity that honors individuals while giving glory to God. If we are divided and constantly arguing over non-essentials, fighting to claim territory that doesn’t belong to us anyway, is anyone really going to be interested in our message? Should we go on? If you’re going to share the Gospel well, you have to live like it’s true.
We have to live like there is a God who loves us to much that He sent His Son to die in our place and rise from the dead on the third day to secure eternal life for all those who would receive it. If we have a God who loves us that much, we cannot afford to be anything but loving to those around us. We have to live like God is the holy, just, and righteous God that He is. If our God’s character is supposedly as good as it is and ours doesn’t consistently reflect it, it may be that His character isn’t really that good after all. Our God is morally pure and totally different from the world…yet loves the people in it perfectly. We can’t afford to compromise on our values even a bit. But if we don’t love the people who don’t share them, they’re not going to be interested in what we have to say. If you’re going to share the Gospel well, you have to live like it’s true.
How we live doesn’t change the truthfulness of the message we proclaim, but it does change whether or not there is going to be any kind of a receptive audience for our words. Listen: people today are hungry for hope and meaning. Why do you think the number of “deaths from despair” is constantly on the rise? People are despairing and desperate. They are searching for life wherever they can find it. Well, we possess the words of eternal life. But if they hate us for any reason that doesn’t have to do with the Gospel itself, they aren’t going to listen. If you’re going to share the Gospel well, you have to live like it’s true.
We may not be able to completely banish from the minds of our neighbors the images of angry Christians with signs and megaphones shouting at everyone around us about where they’re going if they don’t embrace Jesus as Lord. Those words might be true—they are true, in fact—but the evident lifestyle behind them doesn’t fit the hopeful message of the Gospel. If you’re going to share the Gospel well, you have to live like it’s true. Let’s take Paul’s counsel here and show the world in word and in deed just why Jesus is someone they want to know. Let’s live like the Gospel is true.