Your Story Is Evangelism
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Your Story Is Evangelism – 01.15.2023
The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Well, it might not be true – but it’s a great line for the guy selling umbrellas. There is a habit out there in our culture that I want to show you this morning. You know it’s there, even if you don’t have the title for it - you probably could come up with a dozen examples. It’s called Chicken Little Syndrome. Chicken Little Syndrome is where you create alarm in order to sell a product. If you create a crisis, people will pay attention and then once they are paying attention you can sell them the solution. It’s the very worst type of fear-mongering, the lowest of all sales tactics and it is quickly becoming the dominate way we promote or sell anything in our culture. Chicken Little Syndrome has us all terrified, and the church is no different. The problem is that in churches it becomes particularly effective. Everywhere you turn you will see statistics about decline, doom and gloom in the church and it is used constantly to drive the sale of book (and maybe a conference). For example – and this is a real example “80% of young people will grow up and leave the church between ages of 18-24.” Buy my book on how to keep young people in your church. 80%. Except, if you look closer at the data behind the statistic, you’ll find over 30% of those who leave, come back between ages of 25 and 30. Lots of kids fall away from the church when they move out of the house, move to a new town where they’re far away from their home church – but a big chunk of them do come back. Also, turns out that the statistic “80% of young people will grow up and leave the church” was a statistic made up by a group of high school youth group leaders who guessed, and then averaged their guesses. And that gathering was sponsored by a book on how to evangelize youth.
The sky is falling, let me sell you my solution. This is something we do in the news, in politics, in sales and even in the church. Crisis grabs attention, so there is great benefit for sellers to create a state of constant crisis. Chicken Little Syndrome is everywhere. But here’s the important part. Not only do we exaggerate statistics to create crisis to sell the latest and greatest books and curriculums and conferences – but it also creates passivity in the pews. And what I mean is that when you have bad news about the decline of the church stuffed into your face week after week, year after year – our souls become numb. Everything is bad, everything is declining, there’s nothing I can do about it so I might as well just sit back. A recent Barna study found out that 75% of self identified Christians who have conversations about their faith, have less than 10 spiritual conversations a year. 48% of Christians say, and this is a quote, “Most non-Christians have no interest in hearing about Jesus.” The Chicken Little dramatic claims have caused us to give up on sharing Jesus before we even get started. But boy do I have some good news for you today. There was a group connected to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, that got together and did some actual statistical work, some real research backed up with data. And what they found is that things are not as hopeless as you might think. Some of the researchers took the data from their study and held it up against the Chicken Little claims of the modern church and they found that the sky is not actually falling. Researcher Rick Richardson compiled the study into a book called “You Found Me” and the subtitle is “New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open To Christian Faith.” I could talk about this book for days, I read it a couple months ago and it filled me with so much hope for a broken and bleeding American church. It offers an alternative narrative to the Chicken Little Salesmen.
I don’t have time to get into it all, but let me give you a few tidbits. Did you know that of the group of young people who have no religious affiliation, they are not connected to a faith group – 2/3 of them believe in God. 20% of them pray daily. That means they are open to spiritual conversations. The majority of Americans 51-55% still go to church regularly. (If I had asked you, what percentage of Americans go to church every Sunday – would you have said MOST? Would you have said more than half?). Atheists and Agnostics are a very loud section of our population, but they actually represent only 7% of our country. People in the church seem to think that everyone hates them and nobody out there wants to learn about Jesus – but the reality is that the vast majority of people in your life are open to faith. We just gave up before we even tried. And this has dramatic effects on churches. Churches that are full of people who share their faith with others are growing in numbers, and churches that are not are not growing. Rick writes in the book, “In other words, the most evangelistically oriented wing of the protestant church has remained stable while significant losses have occurred in the least evangelistically oriented denominations.” Basically, what I want you to realize this morning is that it is not as bad for Christians as you might think – the sky is not actually falling. If we can just learn how to share our faith with the people around us, we have nothing to worry about. And that’s where this guy Paul comes in handy.
If you were here last week you already know this – but let me catch everybody up. There’s this guy Paul, and he is in jail. He’s been in prison for a good long time, passed around under the chain of command. And last week, as a Roman Citizen, he appealed to Caesar. So he’s going to have his case transferred to Rome. But before we get up to Caesar, there’s a king who wants to meet him. [read v.1-3]. So prisoner Paul is going to stand before King Agrippa and he’s going to tell his story. Verse 9 he says [read v.9-11]. So Paul, as many of us know, Paul was a real stinker before he met Jesus. He was a terrible person. Hunting people down, sending them to prison, voting for their death. He thought he was a good guy. He thought he was being zealous in his religion – but he was actually hurting Jesus’ people. Now if you know Paul’s whole story – you might even call this “Old Paul” – right? This is the person he was before he met Jesus – and Paul’s story is a dramatic reversal. His life now is totally different than who he used to be. Literally a full 180 degree switch. He went from person putting people in prison to the guy who is now in prison. But what I want you to catch from this today is that we all have an Old Paul. In our lives, for all of us – there is who we were before Jesus came into our lives, and there is who we are now after Jesus has been working on our heart. We all have stories of things that we have done. And if you don’t have an “Old Paul” story…if you’re sitting there this morning thinking, “well, I’m basically the same awesome person I’ve always been.” If that’s you – I want you to prayerfully consider that maybe you haven’t had Jesus your life as much as you might think.
Or maybe you do, maybe you’ve been walking with Jesus for so long you forgot who you were before – you forgot about your “old paul.” But if you’re going to share your faith with others, you have to be able to start with your mistakes. Paul didn’t start his story with “I’m one of the greatest missionaries and church planters history will ever see, my passion for Jesus and my obedience to his way is unrivaled.” That’s not what he said. He said, let me tell you about my darkest days. Let me tell you about my deepest sins and my worst moments. Let me tell you how I messed up, and how Jesus made me right. We all have an “old paul” moment, and that’s where we have to start if we want to share our faith. We have to be able to tell people, to admit who we were before.
Then Paul tells the story of his conversion. You might remember, he was on the way to Damascus, and then Jesus shows up and Paul is struck blind. Jesus talks to him and gives him a job to do. Paul is going to spread the gospel, to tell everyone about Jesus. It’s a radical conversion moment, where Paul was like a different man from one day to the next. It’s like an Ebenezer Scrooge style flip the switch – one day: cranky, mean bad guy, the next day: God bless us everyone. It’s a powerful transformative event. People in the modern world still have these type of experiences – they’re incredible stories and I do love hear them. Conversion stories are powerful. But I want to give you a word of comfort. Not all Christians have a moment that they can point to as the moment Jesus showed up in their lives. Especially if you grew up in the church, the process of becoming like Jesus is really gradual – so much so that you’re not sure the exact moment of when Jesus became the one and only lord of your life. And that’s okay. The process of becoming like Jesus takes a lifetime, but you will still have an “old Paul” to point to. You’re entire life is a process of growing and becoming more and more like Jesus. Maybe you don’t have a day that you can point to – but all of us should be able to point backwards 3 years ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago and say, “I have been growing.” Whether your conversion was dramatic or gradual – there is a transformation happening in your life and we should be able to tell people about it.
So we start with the Old Paul, who we were before, then the conversion, whether gradual or dramatic – and then the first thing that happens when Jesus shows up in your life: the people around you notice. Paul tells King Agrippa, Jesus told me to tell everyone about him and so I did. Verse 20, [read v.20] That’s that conversion: Old Paul -> New Paul. [read v.21] So it’s fair to say that when Paul became a Christian, not everyone in his old life was a fan. When you start following the way of Jesus, you will stick out a little bit in the culture. Your life will be different, and people will notice. And sometimes they’ll cheer: like if you kick a drug habit or get more honest in your work ethic. And sometimes they’ll squint at you: “You’re going to get up early on a Sunday? Really?” And sometimes they’ll downright get mad at you, like they did with Paul, “What do you mean Jesus is the son of God and savior of the world, that’s not what we taught you?!?” Following Jesus is going to put you at odds with our culture. So ask yourself, “what is different in your life?” What do you do in your life SPECIFICALLY because you’re trying to follow Jesus? Does your encounter with Jesus get into your priorities, into your budget, into your calendar? What is different in your life because of Jesus? And if the answer is nothing, I’m basically the same person with or without Jesus, with or without the church, then maybe we need to revisit that. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Paul, with people hating him and trying to kill him – but there’s a core truth in that if you’re a Christian the people around you should notice from the way you live your life.
Then the chapter finishes up with my favorite section. It’s King Agrippa and Paul and Governor Festus is there too. There’s a whole bunch of people listening, wealthy and important Roman folks. But in verse 24 Festus can’t handle it anymore. He interrupts Paul’s story and says, [read v.24-28] You’re crazy, Paul! And that’s how a lot of people outside of Christianity look at Christians. We must be crazy. I’ll never forget when I was in college I worked for the City of Troy in the summer, sweaty outdoor work but really good pay. And we’re sitting at lunch one time and we started talking about women, and it came up that I had a girlfriend, but we decided to wait until we got married to have sex. They thought I was crazy. And it’s like, “well, I’m a Christian. And I’m just trying to live my life the way Jesus taught, and that’s one of the things he taught.” People look at my budget, “why you giving 10% of your money to the church?” It doesn’t happen when people look at my schedule. If I go to the nursing home service, or volunteer somewhere, trying to serve and love my neighbors, most people think I do it because it’s my job. And I have to explain, “oh no – I don’t do it because of a paycheck. Look at all the other volunteers out there with me – they don’t get paid.” It's one of the hard things to explain in a Pastor’s testimony, I don’t live this life because it’s a job. I live this life because I’m a Christian, all Christians do this stuff. Serving others, loving their neighbors, doing whatever they can to spread God’s love. It’s crazy, but it’s who we are.
Then Agrippa chimes in and he’s like, “what’re you trying to convert me?” And the answer is YES. [read v.28-29]. Paul’s like, “look, I don’t want you to be in prison. I don’t want you to have chains like I do. But YES, I absolutely want you to know Jesus like I know Jesus.” And that final step is a step MOST Christians in the American church do not take. We have this perception in the modern world that evangelism is rude. Sharing Jesus is judgmental and intrusive. We believe that we are not allowed to tell someone, “yes, I do believe Jesus is for you. He is someone you should have in your life. Jesus is someone you NEED in your life.” We feel we do not have permission to intrude on other people’s spiritual walk. Think back to the statistic I gave you at the beginning of the sermon. 48% of Christians say, and this is a quote, “Most non-Christians have no interest in hearing about Jesus.” It’s not actually true, it’s chicken little nonsense, but it’s what we tell ourselves so we don’t have to share Jesus with others. We have this mentality that if we just make an awesome church – with the best worship, the best programs, the best theology - then the people will magically show up. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter if this church is a Global Methodist Church or a United Methodist Church. What matters is if we can figure out how to start sharing our faith with people who don’t know Jesus. Churches that figure that out will thrive no matter what is written on the outside of the building. Remember Richardson’s conclusion, Churches that are full of people who share their faith with others are growing in numbers, and churches that are not are not growing.
There is such good news in Paul’s story. The core teaching I want you to hang on to is that encountering God changes your life. It has changed my life over and over. Your story is your most effective form of sharing Jesus with the people in your life. Paul’s job, given to him by Jesus was [read v.18]. We want people to have a place among the sanctified. A place among the children of God. And the way we do that is telling our story. There’s three easy steps. The Old You – tell about your mistakes, talk about your shameful moments and the forgiveness you have. Then there’s the new you – tell about how your life is different now, what Jesus has been up to in your world. And then finally, the last step is when we say, “and this is available for you too.” We connect our story to their story. You can experience forgiveness just like I did. God’s good news is for you too. Because encountering God changes your life.
Alright, let me give you a practical application and then we’ll be done. The key to evangelism, the key to sharing God’s good news and bringing people closer to Jesus, the key to evangelism is storytelling. Just like Paul, you have to figure out how to tell your story. And there’s two key parts. First, it’s your story which should give us humility. We all have an “old Paul” time of life. We do not approach other people and say, “I’m a good person, you’re a bad person. You should be like me.” That’s bad evangelism. We approach people and say, “hey, I’m just as messed up as you are – but I know about some really good news for both of us.” That phrase in the old declaration of purpose, we said it every week. “We are not better than other people. We are simply starving people, showing other starving people where to find the bread of life. This is YOUR story, which should give you a big heaping helping of humility as you start out. The key to evangelism is storytelling and the first part of that is that it’s your story.
The second part is that it’s also God’s story. And if it’s God’s story, that should give you boldness. If this was JUST your story, it would be fine for you to keep it to yourself. You could say, “this is just my journey, it’s what works for me – maybe something else works for you.” You could be kind of wishy-washy and just say, “you do you” – if it was just your story. If it was just your story, other people could throw it away, but this is also God’s story, and so we must be bold. We say it all the time, “God’s grace is for everyone” and when we say that we’re not saying, “God’s grace is an option for everyone that maybe you might want to look into.” No, when Christians say, “God’s grace is for everyone” what we’re saying that the greatest good that could ever happen to every single person who ever lived is to know God and make him known. It’s your story – which means we need to be humble, because we need to own the humiliation and shame from our past. But it’s also God’s story – which means we have to be bold. Because this is something that is good news for literally everyone.
The chapter ends with what I think is the best twist of all, [read v.30-32]. That’s the last line of the chapter. Paul could have been set free except that he appealed to Caesar. His boldness and humility, his eagerness to share the story ensured he would STAY in chains. STAY a prisoner, so he could tell this story one more time. And so let me leave you with this, May you look at your life, and find your story. May you share your old Paul moments with humility and solidarity with the brokenness of the people around you. And yet, because God’s grace is for everyone, may you share God’s story with boldness – so that the gospel of Jesus can be heard by everyone in your life. Amen.