Two weeks back I spoke on sex and relationships. And I said part of me didn't want to – because it would remind us of our failures.
And the same goes for tonight's topic, which is speaking about God. Because I guess we know the Lord wants us to be sharing the gospel message about Jesus. And at our best, we want to be doing that – with family and friends and colleagues and schoolmates. But we know that with some people we haven't done it well, and with others, we haven't even tried.
So you may be a Christian and think this is only going to make you feel bad. In which case can I say: we're all failures in this (as in every area of our Christian lives) – me included – and the aim tonight is to find encouragement in the Bible, not to beat ourselves up.
But you may not yet be a Christian, and think it's going to be awkward hearing about how Christians should be trying to share the gospel with those who aren't yet Christians. In which case can I say: I hope you'll be reassured, because the Bible makes clear that we're to respect everyone's freedom – to think about Jesus or not to, and then to believe in Jesus or not to. And if you feel Christians haven't done that, I apologise on our behalf. And, equally, if Christians have failed to help you hear about Jesus when you've wanted to, I apologise on our behalf as well.
Now I've heard a lot of talks on evangelism (to use the jargon for sharing the gospel with people). And they've often included this illustration: 'Imagine you were a doctor and discovered the cure for cancer. You wouldn't keep it to yourself – you'd tell everyone. Well, the gospel is even better news than a cure for cancer, so why aren't we telling more people?' And I know the gospel is even better news than a cure for cancer – because it solves the biggest problem we have, of a broken relationship with God. But hearing that illustration, I've often wanted to get up and say to the speaker, 'The reason we're not telling more people is that it's hard and discouraging – because, unlike a cure for cancer, people don't welcome it with open arms, because we have to tell them they're in the wrong with God and need Jesus to put them right again – which isn't what they want to hear. So please don't beat us up with that unrealistic illustration.' (I've never actually got up and said it – but often thought it.)
So let's look at Colossians 4 for some encouragement. And the first thing it says is this:
1. Remember that people coming to faith is ultimately God's work – and pray and work accordingly (verses 2-4)
Look down to Colossians 4.2-4. The apostle Paul wrote this – most probably in custody in Rome, on trial for his life for spreading the gospel. And he writes to these Christians in Colosse:
"Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us [that's Paul and his fellow-missionaries], that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ [and 'the word' and 'the mystery of Christ' both mean the gospel message about Jesus], on account of which I am in prison — that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak."
So his main request is, verse 3:
"pray… that God may open to us a door for the word"
Which is asking God to do two things. Number one, it's asking God to "open the door" of opportunity for people to hear the gospel – for example, asking him to move the people we invite to Christmas events to come. And, number two, it's asking God to "open the door" of their hearts and create the response of faith in Jesus.
And only God can do those two things. So we can't make people interested in the gospel – for example, we can't make people come to Christmas events. All we can do is: invite and pray. And if you do that and no-one comes, you haven't failed, and shouldn't feel down on yourself: we have to bow to God's timing in door-opening. And, equally, if you invite and pray and they all come, that's God's doing, and you shouldn't feel superior as you walk in with your guests, while someone who's been equally faithful in inviting and praying walks in with none, to support the event nonetheless.
But that's different to how I'd like evangelism to happen. I'd like to pray for God to open a door, and then for him to 'laser-guide' me really clearly to the door he's planning to open – in other words to the person he's making willing to hear the gospel, and whom he's going to bring to faith. So I'd love to pray like in verse 3, and then, next day, have our neighbour call and say, 'Aren't your Carol Services on soon? Can I come with you?' And he comes along and becomes a Christian there and then. Because that way I'd never have to 'push on a door' – in other words, say something Christian, or invite someone to something – and find the door shut in my face – in other words, get a negative reaction or a 'No.'
But that's not how it happens. The way it really happens is that you pray like this, and you then go pushing on all the doors around you – for example, inviting all the people you can to Carols – and then you wait on God to see what he does. Which might be all saying yes, or all saying no, or anything in between. So it's like the farmer in Jesus' parable of the sower. He'd love to have known which was the good soil – that stands for those who are going to respond to the gospel – because that would have saved him all the disappointment and discouragement of 'sowing' the gospel to people who don't respond. But it doesn't happen like that.
Well, look at verse 3 again:
"At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ."
So like I said, "the word" and "the mystery of Christ" both mean the gospel message about Jesus. And the gospel centres on Jesus' death for our forgiveness, and his resurrection from the dead with all its implications – like that he's alive right now in heaven, and that he's the rightful ruler of everyone, and that we'll meet him one day, as our Judge, which means our biggest need is to be forgiven back onto the right side of him before then.
And here's maybe the most important thing to say on this topic. For someone to get from first contact with Christianity to hearing the gospel fully enough to respond is usually a long process, sometimes life-long. And in that process, we often only get the chance to say a tiny bit of the gospel in conversation. So, for example, as many of you know, my Mum died in September. But in the last year of her life, she'd come to faith in Jesus. And so when people have said, 'I'm sorry about your Mum,' I've tried to say a tiny bit of the gospel – something like this: 'Well what makes all the difference is that she'd come to faith in Jesus, so we knew where she was going because of what he'd done for her.'
And what I'm doing there is fishing for a bit more conversation about the gospel. And sometimes people won't pick up on us doing that – so all they've heard is a really tiny bit of the gospel. But sometimes they will pick up on it and we can say more. But as the Aussie evangelist John Chapman used to say, conversation about the gospel is like a verbal game of Scrabble. Because the other person won't necessarily put out on the board the questions you'd like them to. And they will put out all sorts of changes of subject which mean you don't get to say what you'd hoped to.
And the point is: we need to think how we can help people in the process of hearing the gospel more fully (rather than just hearing the odd bit in conversation). And one obvious way is: inviting them to evangelistic services and events (and Christmas is the easiest opportunity when, for once, the culture is more on our side because it still 'does Christmas'.) But one event is unlikely to bring someone from nowhere to faith. It'll be just part of the process. And to hear the gospel more fully, the person who has come along with us may then need to have numerous chats in the pub or Costa Coffee or Quilliam Brothers (take your pick); and/or come to Life Explored or Christianity Explored; and/or do Christianity Explored 1-to-1 with you because they don't want to join a group (I've done that with someone this year, and I did that with Mum last year); and/or they may need to start coming to church, and keep coming for a year or two or more. The point is: it's a process – usually long, sometimes life-long.
So one useful thing to do from time to time is an evangelistic stock-take (and if you're married, you could do this together). The stock-take is to write down the obvious, non-Christian people around you – including family (wherever they are). And that always surprises me. Because I often think I don't know many non-Christian people – when in fact I do, I'm just not well enough in touch with them. And then for each person, you can take stock of where you've got to in helping them hear the gospel. So for some, the answer will be, 'Haven't begun.' For others, it will be, 'Done lots, but reached stalemate.' And all points between. And then you can try to think: what can I (or we) do, to help the process along for each person?
Well, look at verse 2, which I've skipped.
"Continue steadfastly in prayer [for this and other things], being watchful in it with thanksgiving."
In other words, stick at it, don't give up, and start again if you have. And I've not stuck at it consistently for my non-Christian family – sometimes I've all but given up praying and trying to talk to them, in discouragement. But by God's grace, I have stuck at it inconsistently. And, like I said, just this year, aged 85, Mum came to faith. And that's 37 years after I came to faith, and first started praying for her and Dad and my brother, and trying to help them hear the gospel. Dad died a professing atheist – although I don't pretend to know where he finally stood with the Lord – we don't; we just don't have any positive assurance. My brother, after our last big conversation about the gospel, said he'd think about it later – but, despite me prodding from time to time, later hasn't come. But Mum did come to faith.
Which illustrates this first point – that people coming to faith is ultimately God's work: he's the door-opener, and he chooses when and in whose lives to open the door. So we need to pray and keep 'pushing the doors' in our evangelism – and stick at it.
The other thing these verses say is this:
2. Be urgent and wise in trying to help people hear the gospel more fully (verses 5-6)
Look on to verses 5 and 6:
"Walk [in other words, act, behave] in wisdom towards outsiders [in other words, those currently outside of trusting in Jesus], making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
So Paul's just asked them to pray for his evangelism. And now he speaks to them about theirs. Which reminds us that evangelism isn't just for the select few – like the apostle Paul, or church staff, or Christians you know who seem especially good at it. Because verses 5 and 6 are to all of us.
Heineken have just been in trouble for their most recent advert, haven't they? But one from yesteryear said, 'Heineken reaches the parts that other beers cannot reach.' And similarly, each of us is 'spiritual Heineken': each of us reaches into other lives that others here cannot reach. So we each have a unique part to play in helping others hear the gospel.
And Paul says to us: be urgent in that – verse 5:
"Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time."
Literally, that last bit says, 'buy up the time'. In other words, 'snap up opportunity because it's limited.' It's the word for grabbing bargains – like someone who took the day off on Black Friday, so as not to miss the opportunities. So this is saying: be that urgent and that intentional about helping others hear the gospel – because time is limited, the clock of God's plan is ticking, and, as we say in the creed, Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
And that's true for everyone, because Jesus really lived and really died for our forgiveness and really rose again from the dead in history. And things that have happened in history are true for everyone – whether or not people want them to be. So, it's true for everyone that Theresa May is Prime Minister, because she became Prime Minister in history, back in 2016. And it's equally true that Jesus is the rightful ruler of everyone, because he became that, through his resurrection and return to heaven 2,000 years ago. Which means: everyone needs to hear about him, and about how they can be forgiven back into relationship with him, before they meet him, and it's too late.
So, the gospel is true for everyone and needed by everyone. And I wonder whether we're really convinced of that? Because people around us can look happy and successful and even enviable without Jesus, can't they? But elsewhere Paul says:
"So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view."
(2 Corinthians 5.16, NIV)
Instead, we look at people from a gospel point of view, from the point of view that the clock is ticking to the day they'll meet Jesus as Lord and Judge. And the issue is whether they'll also meet him as Saviour and Friend. And maybe that's the issue still 'up in the air' for you right now.
So Paul says: be urgent. But what does that look like in practice? Well, I mentioned the Aussie evangelist John Chapman. His book on evangelism, Know & Tell The Gospel, is still one of the best. And in it he tells how, as a newly converted teenager, he gave his non-Christian family an evangelistic blast every breakfast time. He writes:
'Finally, my exasperated father said,' John, do you ever take your breakfast to church?'
'No,' I said.
'Then don't bring church to breakfast,' he replied.'
It seems a reasonable thing to say, looking back on it thirty years later. But at the time I thought it was a godless rejection of the gospel.'
The point is: that's not being wise. And we need to be urgent… and wise – about whether now is the time to speak, and about what to say and how. And I have no easy formula for that to give you, because there is no easy formula. 37 years into being a Christian I still find it hard to know if I'm being wise in this. But here are a few thoughts.
One is on being wise in a new situation – like with new colleagues in a new job or department or ward; or new team mates or classmates. And I think being wise in a new situation means finding appropriate ways, as soon as we can, to let it be known that we're Christian. And I don't mean calling people together and saying, 'Hey everyone, I want you to know I'm a Christian.' I mean finding appropriate ways – like dropping into the conversation that you went to church last weekend. And doing that in a new situation is good for us – because knowing we're being watched as Christians helps us behave well as Christians. And it's good for those around us – because as they watch, they're learning how Christians live and what makes Christians tick – and they can ask us questions if they want to.
But the bigger issue is probably being wise in long-term relationships with family, friends, housemates – where either you've tried to share the gospel and got nowhere, or you've shared something of it, but reached stalemate. And the easy thing to say is that it's not wise to try to raise the gospel all the time – they don't want church every breakfast – let alone lunch and supper as well. The harder thing is to say what is wise.
But for one thing, I think it means choosing our times for inviting. So, not inviting someone to every event going, but thinking which might particularly suit them. And that involves being upfront, instead of working on what we think the other person is thinking. So, for example, I have a friend whom I talked with a lot at uni, and who came along to a lot of events. But by our third year we'd reached stalemate, and I didn't know whether raising it again would help him or irritate him. So I did the radical thing of asking him. I said: 'Do you want to me to mention Christianity or invite you to any more Christian stuff – or is this really off your radar?' And he said, 'No it's not off my radar at all; I still think about it a lot, so feel free to invite me to things you think I'd find useful.' Which cleared the air for both of us and gave me a sense of permission.
But then for another thing, being wise means choosing our moments for speaking. For example, the last big conversation I had with my brother Niall was after our grandmother's funeral – years ago. At the end of which he said, 'I don't want to think about it now, I'll think about it later.' To which I said, 'But you won't, will you?' And he said, 'No, I probably won't.' So what I've done is to prod him from time to time. For example, everyone says the birth of a first child is a moment of moments to make people think. So I talked to Niall when his son was born. And I said, 'Bringing him up is going to ask you what you believe and are going to teach him. So is now the time to think about what you said you'd think about later?' But he hasn't (as far as I know).
One last thing about being wise is that it means gauging whether we have permission to speak. So look at verse 6 to finish:
"Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
So that assumes we've been asked a question – maybe in response to something Christian we've dropped into the conversation, or maybe in response to the way we live as Christians. And if you have been asked a question, then you definitely have permission to speak and needn't worry about whether you should or shouldn't say something. So it might be a curious question, like, 'Why do you never get drunk?' Or it might be a more hostile question, like, 'Why are Christians so homophobic?' And Paul says we're to answer graciously – which is especially important if the question is hostile. And we're to answer in a way that's 'seasoned with salt' – which is like Jesus saying, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5.13) – so don't lose your saltiness, your distinctiveness. So I think Paul is saying, 'When you have permission to say something distinctively Christian, say it. Don't water it down or bottle out.'
There's much more to say on answering questions – Like: 1) Say what you can, even if it's not much. And 2) Don't worry what the next question back will be, just answer this one. And 3) If you don't know the answer, just say, 'I don't know, I'll think about it.' And then come back to them. But I'm out of time for saying more.
So let me end with a last word from John Chapman, the Aussie evangelist I mentioned earlier. On my first sabbatical, I had the privilege of staying with him, and learning from his lifetime's experience in evangelism. He was then in his seventies. And one time I asked him, 'John has evangelism got any easier for you as time's gone on?' And he said, 'The answer is: stick at it; the first fifty years are the hardest.'