Introduction: Shouldn't we be saying something?
There are certain words or phrases that are almost guaranteed to make people really uncomfortable: root canal, IRS audit. In the church world, one of those words is "evangelism."
If you're a believer, the word "evangelism" conjures up feelings of guilt, fear, or inadequacy. It brings to mind awkward conversations and strained relationships. If you're a seeker, the word is equally uncomfortable. It feels like people are trying to shove religion down your throat; it reminds you of that relative who's always talking about Jesus, or of televangelists haranguing people to come forward and get saved.
The word has so many negative connotations that my goal for this message was to stay away from the predictable stereotypes and uncomfortable feelings associated with that word. But I've come to believe that true evangelism comes from a genuine desire to bless people by doing good—from gratitude for the life that God has given us that leads to a willingness to do anything to share that life with others. If that's evangelism, I'm all in.
So far in our series on doing good we have learned to see what Jesus sees, to feel what Jesus feels, and to do what Jesus would do. We've talked about serving people with no strings attached—no ulterior motives, no bait-and-switch tactics—just blessing people with intentional acts of kindness, generosity, and beauty. And we're beginning to get the hang of it.
We've been receiving stories all week from folks who are doing good and using the "You really matter" cards. Let me share just one with you to give a sense of what people are experiencing:
I was heading to the platform at North Station to make a commuter rail connection, when I noticed a woman sitting and waiting for her own train. She seemed somehow despondent; it was just that look in her eyes, a mixture of downcast and confusion. I stopped and knelt down beside her. I reached out with a card. A five dollar bill was wrapped around it. "Excuse me, ma'am," I said. "I have to catch my train, but I'd like you to accept this to help pay for your ride home." Her eyes widened. She was caught by surprise, and I could sense a "Is this for real or some kind of joke?" response coming on. She stuttered out "Why-y?" "Simply because you really matter," I said. I smiled at her, wished her a great day, then continued out the platform to my train. People around me must have thought I'd lost my senses.
As I walked down the platform I found myself doing something uncharacteristic; I was pumping my fist into the air, grinning ear-to-ear, and saying "Yes! Yes!" out loud. I felt exhilaration and genuine joy that I really could reach out in a simple way and touch the life of someone else. I pray that my courage to step out of my comfort zone and reach out is pleasing to God, and I look and pray for more opportunities to "do good."
If you haven't had the chance to give it a try yet, we encourage you to. You can pick up more cards on your way out.
So we're discovering the joy and simplicity of doing good in Jesus' name. But is that all there is to it? Is that all Jesus asks of us—to do good and walk away? Shouldn't we be saying something? Don't people need to hear the good news as well as experience it?
Of course they do, which is why this series isn't complete until we remind ourselves that doing good isn't just seeing what Jesus would see and doing what Jesus would do; it's also saying what Jesus would say to the people we rub shoulders with everyday. But here's the catch: it's not just a matter of saying what Jesus would say; it's a matter of saying it the way Jesus would say it. In other words, people need to hear the Good News in a way they experience as "good." And unfortunately, that isn't always how they hear it.
For his book UnChristian, David Kinnaman interviewed hundreds of young adults on their perceptions and experiences with Christianity. When it came to the subject of evangelism, the overwhelming response was negative. The people Kinnaman talked to felt button-holed, bullied, and manipulated. Only one-third felt that the Christians in their lives really cared about them. The rest said they felt like someone's project, or like a target.
So how do we share our faith with others in a way they experience as good? How do we say what Jesus would say in the way that Jesus would say it? In order to answer that question, let's take a closer look at John 3. As we walk through this passage let me offer a few principles for saying what Jesus would say, the way Jesus would say it.
Let our actions speak first.
The first thing we learn from Jesus is to let our actions speak first. Let's look at the first couple of verses: "Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who was come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.'"
Nicodemus was a good man. He was deeply religious; he kept the commandments; he was well-educated and a leader in his community. If anyone in that society should have known God and been close to him, it was Nicodemus. But he sees something in Jesus that is missing from his own life. He knows that Jesus has come from God, because of the things that Jesus has been doing.
The signs Nicodemus speaks of are the miracles Jesus had performed. And I would submit it was not just the power behind those miracles that caught Nicodemus' attention. It was the compassion, the kindness, and the beauty of those acts, as well. Keep in mind that Nicodemus had seen plenty of teachers and prophets and so-called messiahs come and go, and many of them claimed to and even appeared to perform signs and wonders. But there was something about the signs and wonders Jesus performed, and the way Jesus performed them, that prompted Nicodemus to want to know more.
So let me ask a very pointed question: is there something about your life that prompts people to want to know more? Do people who know you or encounter you say to themselves, I know she comes from God, because no one has treated me with such kindness before; no one has accepted me or cared for me or served me like that before?
Jesus won a hearing by the quality of his life and works; he earned the right to be heard by virtue of his compassion, goodness, and power. Now, we're not Jesus. You and I are not going to win a hearing by changing water into wine, but we can bring joy to someone's day with a free cup of coffee or an unexpected blessing. We can't heal the sick, but we can care for people when they're hurting and let them know we are praying for them. We're not going to multiply loaves and fishes, but we can provide a home-cooked meal.
The first thing we learn about evangelism is that it involves both proclamation and demonstration—actions as well as words. For too long we have thought of evangelism as telling people what they need to hear. Jesus reminds us that evangelism is also showing people what they need to see. Nicodemus needed to see a life that was different from any other life, a life that was better than the life he had known to that point. The people we'd like to reach out to need to see that, too. That's why we're spending so much time this year talking about doing good. It's not the only thing people need from us, but it's usually the first thing people need from us, especially today.
People today are not going to be won over by the fact that you go to church every Sunday, that you don't use bad words, that you stay sexually pure, and that you always tell the truth. There may have been a time when people were impressed by things like that, but not so much anymore. They may think it's admirable; they may think it's weird, but chances are they're not going to come knocking on your door saying, "Tell me more about that." The thing that will stop people in their tracks, that will make them wonder why, is an unexpected, undeserved, unconditional act of kindness.
Sometimes I'm frustrated that I don't have more opportunities to talk to people about my faith. But maybe it's because I'm not doing the kinds of things that prompt those conversations.
Engage people in real conversation.
That leads to the second thing we learn from Jesus, which is to engage people in real conversation. What's striking about this account in John 3 is the sense of give and take, back and forth, between Jesus and Nicodemus. When Nicodemus comes with this question, Jesus doesn't take out a pamphlet and explain the Four Spiritual Laws. He doesn't take out a napkin and map out the plan of salvation. Jesus will eventually get to that, but that's not where he starts. He doesn't leap at the chance to deliver his speech or some canned presentation. No, what he offers is a conversation starter. Look at how Jesus replied to Nicodemus in verse 3: "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again."
Now most of us are familiar with that expression "born again." For some this expression speaks of new life and a fresh start. For others it's a confusing expression that's been over-used and politicized. But for Nicodemus, it was something he had never heard before. Notice that Jesus intentionally introduced a new way of talking about faith. Nicodemus was expecting Jesus to say something about keeping the commandments or knowing Scripture or offering sacrifices. Instead, Jesus talked about a new kind of life—a new way of being human.
That expression "born again" could also mean "born from above." Most scholars would suggest that's what Jesus had in mind by the expression—a second kind of birth—but that Nicodemus focused on a second time of birth. He asked, "How can a man be born when he is old?"
My point is that Jesus doesn't turn to predictable, worn-out religious clichés in talking to Nicodemus. Nor does he dump the entire message on him. At this point, all he wants to do is to keep the conversation going and get Nicodemus thinking in new ways about what it means to know God.
Paul Borthwick has written a helpful book on this subject entitled Stop Witnessing and Start Loving. He tells the story of a guy he got to know at the gym over a period of months and eventually invited to have lunch one day. After a bit of small talk, Paul decided to cut right to the chase: "Bill, have you ever heard the message that God loves you and offers you the gift of eternal life?" Bill responded, "Yes, but could I ask you a couple of questions?" "Sure," said Paul. Bill went on, "What do you mean by 'God'? What do you mean he 'loves me'? And what do you mean by 'eternal life?'" At that point Paul realized that he needed to slow down and lose the religious jargon. He and Bill just needed to talk for a while—to get better acquainted. He needed to listen for a while and find out where Bill was at spiritually, and through that find out what he needed to talk about.
Sharing our faith isn't about delivering a speech or making a sales pitch. It's about entering into conversations with people. It's as much about listening as it is about talking.
Todd Hunter is the former president of Alpha USA and is something of a specialist in the area of contemporary culture and evangelism. Hunter says that people used to come to faith by listening—hearing a clear presentation of the gospel in a crusade meeting or a home visit. Now he's finding that people come to faith by talking—airing out their doubts and questions in a series of conversations over lunch or a cup of coffee. He says the best thing we can do for people is to listen to them—to offer them a thought or two and let them talk their way to God.
This is what Jesus did with Nicodemus. If we followed the rest of this conversation, we would see it go back and forth like that—question and answer, comment and response—until it came to some resolution later in the chapter. If we were to flip over to chapter 4, we would find a similar thing happened when Jesus encountered a woman at the well. It seems as if John put these two stories together near the beginning of his gospel to provide us with examples of how Jesus typically talked with people about faith. What strikes me about both conversations is how fresh and lively and unpredictable they are.
I don't know how you feel about all this, but I can tell you it's good news for someone like me. I find it difficult to talk about my faith in personal settings, but I can ask questions and listen all day long! It takes a lot of the pressure off to realize I don't have to make a pitch or close the deal. All I have to do is engage people in real conversation. If you're looking for a conversation starter, I wouldn't recommend, "Have you been born again?" But you can ask things like, "What's your religious background?" "Has there been a time in life when you felt close to God?" "What's your impression of church or Christianity?" People are much more interested in those conversations than you might think.
Tell God's story.
Sharing our faith the way Jesus would share it means letting our actions speak first and then engaging people in real conversations. But sooner or later we want to get to the message—what we call the gospel, the Good News—so the third principle I find in this passage is to tell God's story.
By the time we get to verse 16, there's a subtle shift in the passage. We're not sure if Jesus is still speaking or if John is offering his summary of the conversation. Either way, John 3:16 expresses the essence of what Jesus would say to anyone who came to him looking for answers to the questions of life. It is perhaps the most loved and familiar verse in the entire Bible: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." I hear Jesus saying four things here—four things he would want us to say should we have chance to speak for him.
First, he would want us to say something about God's love: "For God so loved the world …." Never underestimate the power of those words. Those words would have caught Nicodemus completely by surprise. He knew that God loved Israel. But the idea that God loved everyone—Samaritans and Gentiles, tax-collectors and sinners—would have blown all his categories.
It's no different today. Many people have no idea that God loves them. They figure God is either mad at them or oblivious to them. Others have heard that God loves them, but they don't know what that means or if it's really true. That's why it's so important for words and deeds to go together. Many people will not be able to experience God's love until they have experienced it from another person—someone who accepts them, cares for them, helps them, or does something good for them. That's why words and deeds go together.
Someone contacted us from the You Really Matter website. She must have gotten a card. It was a young woman who described a variety of difficult and unsettling issues in her life. Her last line was, "I was hesitating to send this, but you tell me that I matter, so here it is." When you have a chance to speak for Jesus, say something about God's love.
Second, say something about Jesus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …." It's wonderful to know that God loves us, but without Jesus, we would be forever separated from that love. Jesus came to bring God near. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus rose to conquer death. There is no gospel without Jesus.
If you have a chance, say something about Jesus. You don't have to tell someone everything, but tell him something. Tell him one story from Jesus' life; tell him something Jesus said or did. Tell him to read one of the gospels. Tell him what Jesus means to you.
Thirdly, say something about life: "… that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Tell them that eternal life isn't just about life after death; it's about life that begins today. It's not just longer life; it's better life. Tell them it's life the way it was meant to be lived—a life of meaning and purpose and joy.
People don't know that about God. They think of God as great the Killjoy in the sky. They think the Christian life is all about things you're not allowed to do. We need to show them and tell them that life with Christ is the best kind of life available to a human being!
Finally, say something about belief. People need to know it's not about good works or going to church or being baptized or knowing the right answers. It's about saying "Yes" to God's love and life. It's about inviting Jesus to forgive you of your sins and to make you into the person you were meant to be. Tell them how you came to believe, and if it feels right, ask them if they're ready to do that.
These are the things Jesus would say if he were walking among us. He'd say something about love and his sacrifice and life and belief. But since Jesus isn't here in the flesh, it's up to you and me to be not just the hands and feet of Jesus, but to be his voice as well. So we let our actions speak first, then we engage people in real conversation. And when the time is right, we tell them God's story. We don't have to tell it all at once, and we don't have to close the deal. We just need to say what Jesus would say.
Let me share with you how this all worked in one person's life. Someone from Grace gave me permission to share portions of his story:
My colleague, Marilyn, is a senior faculty member who is loved by her students and always willing to help them with anything. At the first commencement I attended, I saw Marilyn hugging her students so warmly and whole-heartedly that I was deeply impressed. Something about her seemed different to me. About two years later, my sister lost her husband suddenly. When I came back to school after the funeral, I found a small card in my office with some comforting verses from the Bible. It was from Marilyn. That's when I understood why she was different. For the next two years, I began to notice other Christians around me. My sister, who was an atheist, began to explore Christianity, and I saw her life transformed by Christ. She and I had many conversations about spiritual things. My wife came to Christ and I was amazed at the transformation in her life. It was as if she had been born all over again. I was drawn to the kindness I saw in all of their lives, and after many conversations, I decided to surrender my own life to Christ. Now I am able to reach out to my friends, neighbors, and family members and tell them about the God who changed me.
Do you see how it worked? Small acts of kindness won his attention. There were many conversations over a period of years until he understood God's love and life and said "Yes" to Jesus.
And so it went with Nicodemus. At some point this conversation came to an end, and Jesus let Nicodemus walk away. But that wasn't the end of the story. Nicodemus showed up again in the middle of John's gospel, arguing with the Pharisees to give Jesus a fair hearing. And he showed up again at the end of the gospel, taking Jesus' body down from the cross and preparing it for burial. It took a while for the things Jesus said and did to sink in, but eventually, it seems, Nicodemus believed the Good News and was born again.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.