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Taking Every Opportunity – Conversations About Jesus – Peter Thomas

June 2, 2016

TEOCAJRev Peter Thomas is Minister of North Springfield Baptist Church in Chelmsford, Essex. He suggests that despite Toddler Groups to Fun Days, from Holiday Clubs to cafés, from Food Banks to Community Choirs, contacts from these “Crossing Places” are rarely immediately ready to start attending church services or for popular Inquirers’ Courses such as Alpha or Christianity Explored.

 He draws on The Barna research.

This pamphlet deals with the following issues:

How can we help Contacts become Inquirers? By having conversations about Jesus and that is something every Christian can do!

The Holy Spirit and Prayer – we begin by praying much more about our evangelism and witness.

Preaching the Gospel Necessarily Includes Words – no catchy slogan will ever give us permission to be silent.

Dialogue Reaches the Hearts Monologue Can’t Reach – not talking at people but having genuine conversations.

Prepared to Answer – churches need to help equip Christians to talk about Jesus and here is one approach.

Answering the questions people are asking – here are the issues we need to be ready to talk about.

This is my story – Christians should all be ready to tell other people about the difference Jesus makes in their lives.

Conversations and Cake – we need to make better use of hospitality.

A Joined-Up Programme of Evangelism – every church should have one.

Ministers as Evangelists – whether we want to be or not.

“Unchain the Lion” – Christians should know Scripture and be giving it away.

Written Testimony – Newsletters, Bookstalls and Christian Christmas Cards.

Adventurous Outreach – insights from churches on Café Church, Messy Church and other new and creative approaches.

Just do it! “Personal conversation is the best way of evangelism. It is natural, it can be done anywhere, it can be done by anyone.” (Michael Green)

I am minded to quote Ephesians 4:11-12: The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

But I found this report to have lost of ideas that don’t give me cold feet. Although I don’t consider myself to be an evangelist, I already do some of these things as a matter of course.

Quotations:

“If necessary use words” is used by some Christians as a “get-out clause”, as if somehow that saying allows them to stay silent about their faith. Roman Catholic blogger Emily Stimpson explains the problem very clearly. “Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.” Some writers even use the saying to suggest that Christians have somehow failed in their witness if their daily lives are so inadequate that they need to articulate the gospel in words. Unhelpfully this can leave some Christians feeling guilty when they do talk about Jesus! Any idea that our actions should be sufficient and that words should not be necessary in evangelism is gravely mistaken.

To start with, Saint Francis never said “if necessary use words” or anything like it.  Nor would he have done so. Emily Stimpson says, “Every chance Francis got, he proclaimed the Gospel. He proclaimed it to the wolves in the forest. He proclaimed it to the Sultan in Egypt. He wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. He couldn’t. Anymore than a woman in love can stop talking about her beloved. The thought of not speaking about his love, about Christ, to the world, would have horrified (Francis).” “He knew what the Church has always known. There is no “if” about the necessity of words in evangelization, just as there is no “if” about the necessity of actions. They are both necessary. They are both essential.” “Preach the gospel. Since it is necessary, use words”

His Holiness Pope Paul VI was very clear. “Nevertheless [witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified…and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” In some corners of the church it seems as if the heralds have been struck dumb – some messengers have forgotten the message.

Often the best way to convey the gospel message today will be through dialogue, by engaging in conversations which explore spirituality and share faith, by teaching and explaining, persuading, convincing, sharing Scripture, and frequently  just by answering questions.

We begin by listening, not only to discover what is the most appropriate thing for us to say next, but more importantly listening to discern what God is already doing in the lives of these not-yet-Christians. Then we talk with people. Not talking at people, or talking to people, but engaging in genuine conversations with people. We certainly never could communicate the whole of the gospel message in a single conversation, and nor do we need to. It will be enough to share what we are given at that time. The Holy Spirit can shape a jigsaw of ideas into a gospel picture in our friend’s mind.

In this world Post-Christendom Stuart Murray says evangelism should become “Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation – evangelism alongside others, not declaiming from an authoritative height, through dialogue instead of monologue,” “Gentle questioning must supersede domineering assertions. Bold humility must replace arrogant insecurity. The images of fellow travellers and conversation partners must usurp memories of inquisitors and crusaders.”

Recent research has identified six Big Questions spiritually minded non-churchgoers want answers to.

  1. Destiny? What happens after we die?
  2. Purpose? What is the point of life? What values should I live by? Who inspires us?
  3. The universe? How did it start? Is it designed or planned or controlled?
  4. Does God exist? What is he/it like? Can we know or have a relationship with God?
  5. Spiritual realms? What form do they take? Angels, ghosts. Supernatural?
  6. Suffering? Why is there so much? What can be done? Concerns about domestic abuse, crime, intolerance and lack of respect.

There are also a number of common objections to the Christian faith.  “I’m not the religious sort.” “You can’t believe in God these days.” “All religions lead to God” “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” “I do my best – nobody can do any more.” “You can’t change human nature.” “Science has disproved the Bible/religion.” “All truth is relative.” “We can’t trust the Bible.” “Jesus was just an ordinary man.” “Through history the church has done terrible things.” “There are hypocrites in the church.” “All the church cares about is money and buildings.” “Religion is just a crutch for the feeble.” “A loving God would not send people to hell?”

I hereby launch a campaign to ban the phrase “followed by refreshments.” This gives the wrong impression that when the church gather to worship and learn, beverages and nibbles are incidental. On the contrary, times of hospitality are too valuable and useful to squander. I am struck by Catherine Butcher’s inspiring phrase, “overwhelmingly generous hospitality” where we demonstrate God’s love and give guests and visitors an opportunity to encounter Jesus in us. And the greater purpose of “refreshments” is surely to facilitate conversations and the building of relationships.

We are being church just as much while we are welcoming visitors and guests, sharing experiences and testimony and pastoral concerns, building relationships and maybe even praying for each other, as when we are singing hymns and listening to sermons. When better to get into the habit of talking about Jesus than with other believers at church? Over the last five years our most far-reaching change at NSBC was the decision to serve refreshments to everybody in the worship area and not down the corridor in the little hall. Now almost everybody stays and chats. In some churches singing fewer songs or shortening the sermon might encourage more to stay and be involved in those precious conversations. I went to one church where they showed a special welcome by serving filter coffee for visitors and instant for their regulars. And we have cake. Birthday cakes. Special occasion cakes. Lots of cake – with suitable tasty alternatives for any who shouldn’t eat cake, of course. I will say more below about those churches who are building on this simple principle in various forms of Café Church.

Churches will want to build evangelistic events and activities into their programmes. The Barna research indicated that more than a quarter of practising Christians believe that “attending (a) church service(s) (other than weddings and funerals)” had positively influenced them in becoming a Christian. Highlights will be services of Believer’s Baptism which will normally surely be outreach opportunities built around the testimony and the baptism alongside a gospel message which is aimed at guests and visitors, with an appeal offering ways to respond and find out more. Not everybody will want to make all their Sunday services Willow Creek style “Seeker Services” but surely all churches will want to plan periodic special “Guest Services” or “Seeker-Sensitive Services”, not least taking seasonal opportunities such as New Year, Valentine’s Day, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Summer Holiday, Harvest, Halloween/“Light Parties”, Remembrance and Christmas.

Research shows that courses developed “in-house” are very often more effective for Inquirers than commercial materials. These can be simple Evangelistic Bible Studies, “Agnostics Anonymous”, Meal-with a Message” or “Grill the Vicar” occasions. Courses can be built around books or videos.

Whether ministers consider themselves to be an evangelist or not, the reality is that many people will start conversations on spiritual things with a minister which they would not do with anybody else. It is good if the minister is given as many of those opportunities as possible. This implies that it is part of the mission of the church for the minister to have time and space to build contacts in the community and friendships with neighbours and friends outside the church. Another aspect of this is for members of church and congregation to create opportunities for their family and friends to meet “our minister” outside church contexts, at street parties, barbecues or dinner parties, pamper evenings  and chocolate parties, watching football, camping weekends or sailing trips, or even just sharing tea or coffee. Christians must be brave enough to trust their minister not to be too weird, or Bible-bash their friends! But such encounters will also open the door for numerous future opportunities when pastoral situations arise, as well as making it easier for the Christians to talk about their faith. It also follows that in general ministers must not be tied up in the mechanics of making outreach activities and events happen, but rather be as free as possible to engage guests and visitors in conversations – even though many ministers would rather hide in the kitchen. That also ensures that someone who needs to talk to a minister urgently is able to do so without the occasion grinding to a halt.

Newsletters are expensive in money, time and energy. How much better to produce monthly or seasonally a publication which is not restricted to church members but designed primarily for not yet Christians. Containing gospel messages and Bible teaching, prayers and testimonies as well as news of upcoming events, it should be aimed at fringe contacts through the church’s activities and be a publication Christians are very comfortable to give away to their friends, neighbours and colleagues. It can open the door to conversations. “Did you read …. ?” “What did you think about …. ?”  Any Newsletter should aim at quality. Chris Radley wrote that people “instinctively equate scruffily produced materials with inefficiency or untrustworthiness.”

It can be downloaded here

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