Summary: Evangelism is not a dirty word, and we’ve got to reclaim it from those who distort it.
“Evangelism” What comes to mind when you hear that word? Some of you grew up in the time of tent revivals. For a week, folk would gather from miles around underneath large tents to share a good meal, sing Gospel hymns, and listen to a fiery preacher bring the message that we all need Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, the tent evangelist gave way to the televangelist. Men like Oral Roberts, Jim Baker, and Jimmy Swaggert were gaining momentum and flooding the airways. The message was the same; it was simply a different venue by which to deliver the message of Jesus Christ.
When I think of tent revivals, I think of community, warmth, friendship, and fried chicken with a loud and forceful preacher; but unfortunately, when I think of televangelists, I tend to think of trickery and deceit, as many leaders of these huge tele-ministries have been found guilty of misappropriating funds, misleading people, and immoral behavior.
Now it’s not my intention to paint all televangelists with the same broad brush. There are those who are promoting and leading their ministry with integrity, and in doing so, they provide a valuable ministry. I contrast the tent evangelist and the televangelist to illustrate the change and perception that has taken place in our world when it comes to evangelism.
Where people once would drop everything for a week to come to church and hear the outspoken evangelist, our culture doesn’t embrace evangelism as it once did, a large part of which can be attributed to a general mistrust. In days gone by, communities held the church and their ministers in high regard and most everyone supported them, but in our present-day culture, the church as an institution and ministers in general, are not trusted.
According to research in the early 90’s by George Barna, of the four major Protestant denominations in America: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran, none had reputations that were rated “very favorable” by even one-third of the population. The same study showed that the percentage of adults expressing confidence in religious leaders dropped from 49% in 1974 to 22% by 1990. The problem is that some high profile religious leaders have made some very public blunders and outright criminal activity, which have caused many people to not trust the church and its leaders, and that mistrust impedes evangelistic efforts.
Webster’s defines evangelism as “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ.” I’d agree. That’s evangelism, but listen to its second definition: “militant or crusading zeal.”
That’s a negative and pushy definition. That’s not how I choose to evangelize, but if that’s the overwhelming perception of evangelism, no wander it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth.
Folks, evangelism is not a dirty word, but we’ve got to reclaim it. We’ve got to snatch it from the hands of those who made it an unpleasant, militant cause. We’ve got to rethink how we do it. That doesn’t mean the message is any different, only the means by which and the spirit within which we deliver it, is different.
Our scripture passage this morning gives a basic, tried-and-true, evangelistic example. Jesus has gone to Galilee and he finds Philip. I love the way John describes it saying, “Jesus found Philip.” In other words, Jesus selected him; Jesus called Philip into the ministry. Immediately, Philip goes and finds his friend Nathanael. He tells him, “I have found the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about. Come and see.”
This is our first lesson in reclaiming evangelism: Invitation. Philip invited Nathanael to meet and experience Jesus Christ. He didn’t walk up to Nathanael, wave a scroll in his face, twist his arm, and ask him if he was an obedient, fearful, repentant follower of God. He invited him to share his experience. It’s that simple.
We issue invitations to people all the time. We invite friends into our homes for dinner. Our children invite friends over to play. When we go into town, sometimes we invite a friend to ride along. We do it without a second thought. Inviting people to church should be just as natural, but for some reason, it’s not. Look at how Philip issued his invitation.
I can hear the excitement in Phillip’s voice. “We have found him, the one whom Moses wrote about. I have met him, Nathanael.” Within Philip’s invitation, he explained what he was inviting Nathanael to do: meet the Messiah. Philip had met Jesus, and he wanted to share his experience with Nathanael. He didn’t try to convert him. He didn’t carry him down the road to salvation, he said, “Come and see.” In other words, come try it out, and experience what I’ve experienced.
We do this all the time, too. We eat at a new restaurant and have a great time. The service is good, the food is good, its reasonably priced, and we tell our friends, “You have to try this new restaurant. It was awesome. I had a great experience” We do the same thing with movies, “I saw a movie this past weekend, and it was great. You have got to go see it.” We’re not so much promoting the restaurant or movie as if we’ve got a financial stake in it, as we’re promoting the pleasure and joy we gained from the experience.