How do we run with the baton of faith a previous generation has thrust into our hand?
There has been much talk about intentional evangelism in Church circles recently. In a way the term intentional evangelism is meant to distinguish it from unintentional evangelism; in other words, we need to move from a default setting where we aim to touch people with the quality of our lives without giving them a clue as to why we are the way we are, to a position where, at the right moment, we articulate cogently why we live the way we do.
The Apostle Peter said we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us, but we need a reality check. While some people are quick to seek opportunities to share the Gospel with others, a sizeable number of Christians are slow to do this and, when a chance presents itself, stand frozen to the spot like a cricket fielder who doesn’t see the ball fly his way. Like financial stewardship, the call to evangelism is one of the more uncomfortable components of an authentic Christian faith. Few find it easy. It’s not that we don’t have a story to tell, it’s just that we fear ridicule, rejection or the lazy stereotyping of others who might pass us off as the office’s religious nutcase.
I suspect sharing the Gospel has never been straightforward; the way the first Christians were martyred for their faith was an early clue for those who followed. Yet we should understand the culturally specific dilemmas we face if we are to find the resolve and the aptitude to run with the baton a previous generation has thrust into our hand. Those who open their mouth to share the Gospel suspects they carry some baggage they would rather not. One piece of unwelcome luggage is the reputation the Church has as an institution. In a way we are only part of a wider trend of declining trust in the bodies which make up Britain’s public life. Of those who say the Church is a negative influence in the world, a significant number say it is because the Church is too prejudiced, stuffy and out of touch; and the younger you are, the more likely you are to say this. However, surveys show that a large majority of people (nearly 60%) think the Church is neither a positive nor a negative force in society. In other words, the greater challenge we face is one of the irrelevancy of the Church in the eyes of others. This alone suggests we have not been making the case we should have for Christ.
The new and ambiguous public environment where the status of faith is uncertain calls out for smarter training and equipping by the local and national Church, lest we retreat altogether from this arena, like scared people on a witness protection scheme. Whatever risks we run in the verbal sharing of faith, when the moment presents itself, is little compared to others. One friend with close experience of the Iranian Church explained recently how the church she is connected with gives a handful of Bibles out to those who leave Church each week. They have to give them out and not bring them back. The penalties for proselytising are severe in Tehran, but each week they do it.
The encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8 is a prime example of how to share faith. The early Church was buzzing with miracles and conversions, so when Philip felt the call of the Holy Spirit to take the sparse and dusty desert road to Gaza, he probably felt like a Premier League footballer substituted on the verge of a hat-trick, taken out of play on the whim of a higher authority. Our lives are made up of tedious journeys, boring meetings and random encounters, yet it is precisely in these places that we are of use to God.
There are two dimensions to the Ethiopian of note. The first is that the Holy Spirit was already at work in him. He had been to Jerusalem to worship in his own way and was reading scripture on his journey home. The unthinking, if not arrogant, assumption we make when we converse with someone about faith is that this will be the first time they have thought about the issue. We need to develop our understanding of the Holy Spirit, for he is endlessly working and may only be calling on us to do one small thing in the pattern of that other person’s life.
The other thing about the man was his status as Ethiopian Finance Minister. He held purse strings and connections which meant that a conversion to Christianity would be noticed and felt by many. We can make too much of high profile conversions, for in and of themselves they are no guarantor of something bigger. However, the attitude we strike over, for want of a better term, celebrity conversions is often one of indifference or even, strangely, derision. In an era where celebrity endorsement counts so much, to intercede for well-known Christians to maintain a faithful witness may be a calling we have missed.
The Ethiopian’s story should establish in our mind that behind the person we share faith with lies a whole stadium full of people who are influenced by their actions. We use the clumsy jargon of networking today, yet even standing still we exist in a network of people whom we can influence for good. Some prayerful consideration of who these people are may be a good place for us to begin. The detail of Philip explaining the words of Isaiah is not incidental, either. A person I know saw a friend reading the Bible on her iPad and asked her if she was a Christian. The answer was no, but the easy facility of a Bible app had led her to read it for the first time in her life.
Despite this, our encounter with others is likely to be less on the terrain of scripture and more in the main stream of culture. God will not be silenced simply because people are not reading scripture. This is why the need for apologetics and the interpretation of culture is vital to our witness. Like a ventriloquist, God is more than capable of throwing his voice into the work of another.
We should note that the conversion of the Ethiopian did not benefit the Church in Jerusalem from which Philip had come, but would bless the Church that God was calling into being in Africa. Our evangelism may have no impact at all on our local church’s numbers, but a disproportionate effect on another. When we pray for the growth of the Church, we should first be prepared to see it grow in someone else’s patch. Ultimately, the Kingdom will replace the Church.
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