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Saturday, 14 April 2018

Bridging the Gap by Going Out of Our Church Buildings

This will probably be my final post in the “bridging the gap” series as I’m about out of ideas! For more recent followers, I’ve been focusing on ways that Christians can bridge the ever growing gap between believers and non-believers. So far, we have looked at being real, keeping the focus on the Gospel and using words that people understand.

We need to think about this issue because people from the street are not just walking into our churches. We can be pretty good at hosting church events and inviting people, but what about those who would never attend because the event is in a church building. They don’t want the inevitable questions if they are seen, or perhaps, they are fearful of what might happen during the service.

To ensure everyone hears the Gospel, and to properly obey the Great Commission, we need to go into all the world and tell every person the Good News about Jesus. The Open Air Mission has evangelists all around the country who do this on a daily basis. I’ve just returned from their annual training day in Bromsgrove which was a great encouragement. We were reminded of the huge impact 160 people committed to open-air work could make across the country. Even more so should we all manage to get our church fellowships on-board.

A former full-time worker, probably now in his seventies, was asked whether open-air work still has a place in our society, or whether it’s had its day, as many churches seem to believe. He responded with a story about his own conversion, having been raised in a non-Christian home seemingly with no Christians even on his radar. He pointed out that currently less than 10% of the country is being reached with the Gospel through schools and churches. Someone had taken the trouble to step out of their comfort zone and tell him the Good News about Jesus when he was in his late teens. He is left with the devastating reminder that generations of his family are subject to eternal punishment. If his story ended there it would be pretty depressing, but this man is so grateful that someone took the trouble to reach him in his lostness, that he has dedicated his life to doing the same thing for others. How anyone could fail to be moved by such an answer, spoken with such conviction, about something so important, is beyond me.

What about the average Christian, though? Someone who just has a few hours here and there and wants more flexibility, or a little less confrontation. With the support of your church, you could try setting up a simple book table in your town. All you will need in a small fold-away table, deck chair (optional,) literature and a sign highlighting what you are offering. Then, find a space that isn’t in the way, I usually use a sizeable doorway, and set up.

Recently, I noticed what a difference good weather makes as people are much more willing to stop and chat, and just seem more cheerful in general. A typical few hours with a book table in my town produces the following types of contact:

My time began with a man from a different church advising that he had a load of Christian literature to dispose of and discussing methods of evangelism. He was quickly followed by an enthusiastic Christian lady who started off by encouraging me but then suggested I should give leaflets to people instead of waiting for them to be taken. I explained that I do give out leaflets as part of other outreaches, and our church puts leaflets through every door in the town over the year, but that for this outreach, I’m just making the literature available for those that God prompts.

Next, a white van man who has been mentioned in a previous post, made a bee line for me. His opening question was, “Have you got a copy of the King James Version of the Bible yet?” I informed him that I was sticking with my ESV. He told me that it was corrupted, that I was missing out and that he was just trying to help me, before walking back to his van calling loudly behind him that I should get a King James Bible. I resisted the urge to ask him if he was going to church yet….

Then, two at once, which can be tricky, especially when they start talking to each other and one seems to be leading the other off topic. An older man on a mobility scooter had been watching at a distance for a while and eventually made his cautious approach. We had just begun talking, and he was examining the literature, when an even older, white haired, lady walked between the man and the books and announced that she was a devout Catholic and congratulated me on having the courage to be out in the street. I never know what to say when this happens, as it’s not really something worthy of praise, but voicing too much humility can be counter productive.

The lady quite loudly took over the conversation stating that we were all the same before asking me what religion I belonged to. I was somewhat surprised by the question as my sign clearly says “free Christian books.” When I said I was a Christian she looked temporarily confused. I wondered whether she was just enthusiastic about the prospect of religion in general entering the high street. She continued talking to the man as if she had invited him to look at her books, and as if she needed to carefully explain things to him. When she spoke about people being oblivious to God, I managed to get in with a short comment about our sin and need of forgiveness before she was off again. The man interjected to ask for an Ultimate Questions booklet before taking his leave. The woman followed him along the street, still talking at him. I was a bit bewildered by the experience but grateful that the man took the book.

A quiet lady then took Where is God when things go wrong? by John Blanchard, after studying the books for a while. Then, a lady who I met at the book table on a previous occasion, who attends another church, passed by and we had a brief chat about how to get a mutual friend who isn’t a believer to church. I then overheard some young girls on the other side of the street, on seeing my sign, comment that they weren’t “holy” or “Christian”. One of the reasons for going out is to trigger this type of reflective conversation and to make people think about God.

Finally, a man who attends another church, out of the area, came over. After a brief chat about our shared faith, he seemed to veer off topic with questions about my age and marital and relationship status. Nevertheless, he encouraged me in the work and said he would pray for me before wandering off. Never a dull moment.

I thought it might be helpful for those who are considering this type of outreach to get an idea of what could happen if you brave the unknown. However, every town and every individual is, of course, unique, which is why prayer is crucial.  

Pray, try it and see what happens.

Mark 16 vs 15

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.

Monday, 2 April 2018

How Safety Conscious Are You?

Western societies are becoming more and more obsessed with health and safety, and eliminating risk. I stated the obvious in a previous post that, regardless the precautions taken, sooner or later we will all die.

We see reports in the national and local news every day of people killed whilst going about their daily business. A farmer trampled by cows, a man swept out to sea by an out of control vehicle, two teenagers found six hours after their car crashed in a remote area at night, former spies poisoned in a supposedly safe part of the country, London’s murder rate over-taking New York’s! I could go on, but the point is that it could happen to any of us at any time. I’m sure these people weren’t considering that they might be living the last hours of their lives before tragedy struck.

Ironically, perhaps, many people who fuss and worry about their daily safety, or the relative safety of others, make little or no preparation for the most risky venture of their lives; appearing before God on Judgement Day without a remedy for their sin. Surely, preparing for eternity in either Heaven or Hell is worth at least a few hours of immediate consideration?

When I look at the things that keep us busy in this life, I almost feel desperate, because so many of them are unimportant, meaningless and trivial. We are far too attached to earthly things. We are often too comfortable and secure, making us unwilling or unavailable when the time comes for us to consider a work that God would have us involved in.  We really need to examine how we spend our time, resources, and money, in light of eternity. 

Those who want to keep their daily focus on Jesus, where it should be, are too often told to lighten up, or to find some hobbies or other interests. They are labelled as "extreme" or "fundamentalist". They are too often dissuaded from evangelistic zeal for a plethora of seemingly valid reasons, rather than being encouraged, or even joined, in the spiritual battle for souls.

People are now so distracted by earthly things that the spiritual no longer registers on their horizon. God has somehow been relegated to the “List of non-priorities that perhaps I’ll get round to investigating when I’m on my death bed.” How can this be in a society that is so safety conscious?

Could it be that our nation’s obsession with health and safety is a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable appointment with death? An attempt to draw out the short period that we have here on Earth. If people really believed in a place called Heaven which is reportedly so much better than our current situation, then why are people so keen to stay here? Why do they want to avoid death at any cost?

Doesn’t it make more sense to suggest that most aren’t really sure what happens when they die? I know of several people who, on starting to realise that Christianity might be the truth, have been afraid or unwilling to explore further due to the implications it would have for them personally. They prefer to continue as they are and leave things on hold.

Some prefer to revert to fantastical imaginings of Heaven as a place full of their favourite eateries, or hobbies, or unlimited alcoholic drink. They make wrong assumptions about what Heaven will be like, rather than examining the reality that, according to the Bible, they won't even be going there.

Others prefer not to think about death. They completely bury their heads in the sand until their day comes, figuring that they will deal with it when it happens. 

Any, or all, of these approaches, though, seem like a pretty risky way to carry on!

There’s an advertisement that shows a bunch of people settling down on an aeroplane. The captain starts listing all the things that could go wrong with the plane because the proper checks haven’t been done. He suggests they just “wing it.” As everyone rushes to get to the exit door before the plane takes off, the point is made that you wouldn’t want to travel on a plane that wasn’t adequately prepared for the journey, so remember to check your tyres, fuel and oil on your car.

Aren’t we doing the same thing with our lives when we fail to even consider the life beyond this one? When we travel through this life without adequate preparation and expect to just “wing it” when the time comes.

What if God has already provided everything we need to make adequate preparation for eternity? What if God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and to rise again on the third day defeating death and sin once and for all? What if His sacrifice means that on that Day of Judgement we can stand boldly before God knowing that our sin is covered and we will be welcomed into Heaven?

Wasn't this what you have been thinking about this Easter Bank Holiday weekend?

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Are We Over-Complicating Evangelism?

As someone with a heart to share the Gospel with others, I’m often thinking of better ways to “do” evangelism. Not that I believe that there is a one size fits all approach or that we should focus too much on methods. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit of God is the catalyst for all conversions and that we need to pray for Him to be at work in and through us.

However, it’s good to consider whether our various efforts are bearing fruit and if not, to consider whether our chosen methods might be creating unnecessary barriers, or even, perhaps, whether it might be time for a different approach. There is an ever widening gap between the church and the world, between Christians and non-Christians. It follows, then, that we need to be thinking about how we can bridge this gap.

My thoughts often turn to social enterprise as a means of reaching people, as this is increasingly popular. The evangelistic coffee shop idea. I had thought about combining this with a Christian book shop or library due to the decline of the presence of Christian literature on our high streets. The Salvation Army have recently opened a big charity shop with an attached cafe in my town. Visiting, though, there is no difference between this set-up and any secular coffee and charity shop. People are not going to be particularly receptive if someone just sits down and starts sharing the Gospel with them whilst they are trying to drink their coffee. This idea, as an outreach opportunity, necessarily fails at the first hurdle.

What about a coffee, or book, shop that is overtly Christian? It’s worth asking, how often would non-Christians visit, and for what purpose when there are so many non-religious options out there? Mostly, these places end up being visited, and sustained, by people from the church that started them. Unless it’s made clear to visitors at the outset that they might be interrupted and spoken to by a keen evangelist, we have the same problem as the secular environment; the people just want to drink their coffee in peace!

Some might argue that Gospel literature can be left on the tables and the building appropriately decorated with Bible verses etc. This is true, and if the Spirit prompts someone to pick up a tract or to start memorising a Bible verse, then great. But, if all Christians carried tracts and left them everywhere they went, this would easily cover the few non-Christians who might enter a Christian premises and end up taking away a tract or reading Bible verses on the walls. If people are that openly curious about Christianity already, then surely they would just go to a church!?

Turning then to other forms of passive outreach using social activity; sports clubs and activities and the like. How often have we actually managed to effectively share the Gospel with attendees? How can we get people to even attend without tricking them with mumbled explanations about what will happen when they get there, and then pouncing on them later when it’s too late for them to leave? How can we keep these programmes Gospel focused and stop people being distracted by the activity? How often do these activities end up being closed down after decades because they have become nothing more than another social event? How many people actually end up in church through these activities?

These questions are more relevant than ever in our anti-religious, apathetic, materialistic age. As people are growing increasingly indifferent to Christianity, perhaps, we need to strip away the exciting activities, comfortable surroundings and pleasant environments. Maybe, these things are distracting people from their real need and presenting a confusing picture in terms of what Christianity is all about.

What if our attempts to create the perfect platform for sharing the Gospel are resulting in barriers that we then have to find ways to remove further down the line? 

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Is it time for a less complicated, less expensive, and more direct approach?

I’m going to suggest three options that are comparatively cheap, direct and effective:

Open Air Work/Street Preaching

People are not often coming into our churches, we need to take the Gospel to them. The Open Air Mission evangelists go out into the high streets of England with a simple board. Using their board for the presentation, men preach a short Gospel centred message to the people passing by. Christians in the crowd note those who show interest and attempt to talk to them. Literature is handed to others walking past. (United Beach Missions do similar work.) You can read There Is Still Much To Do! by Andy Banton to find out more about this work or attend their Training Day on 14th April 2018.

Utilising our Church Buildings

Having highlighted some of the issues that can arise when we use social enterprise as a tool to share the Gospel, is there still a case for using our church buildings for evangelism? Of course, there is. Those who are blessed with buildings, especially in central locations, know how effective they can be when utilised. When a building is clearly a church, or used as a church building all of the time, people who enter it know what they are getting themselves into. They are choosing to enter an environment where they may expect to be spoken to by Christians and to hear messages from the Bible. Likewise, when activities take place in the church or a building immediately attached to it, there is no confusion. We need our church members to be proactive in inviting people to our church events and making sure they are upfront about what will happen when they attend.

Personal Contacts/Friendship Evangelism 

This is where any natural contact with non-Christians is important whether through work or just where we happen to live. All of us should be seeking to cultivate these relationships with a view to sharing the Gospel when the opportunity arises. Our words should be backed up by our prior behaviour. Let's not wait indefinitely to actually tell people, though, as none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Pray first and then go for it!

It’s easy to be perpetually busy in Christian activities, but let’s make sure we are actually getting around to sharing the Gospel with the folks we are involved with. If we are running activities, whether in the church or outside, that have morphed into mere social events and there is no way to rescue them, perhaps we should consider closing them down and starting again. Likewise, if the things we are offering people are distracting them from the Gospel, our programmes might need a rethink.

My disclaimer here is that we must help people practically and they have various needs. This is a call to ensure we start with the Gospel and present this as the answer to the person’s most pressing need of forgiveness of sin and peace with God. At the very least, we must offer hope along with practical help.

The enemy will provide plenty of reasons why confrontational or direct evangelism is not the way to go, but these days it might be exactly what your friend, neighbour or relative needs to wake them up and make them stop and think. They aren’t going to be mad at you for being culturally inappropriate when they get to Judgement Day!