Part I of a VII Part Series
“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:41-42)
A good leader starts with the basics. You’ve heard the famous story about how legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi began preseason training one year. On Day One, he gathered his troops in a conference room, surveyed the assembly of hulking behemoths, hoisted a pigskin, and proclaimed, “Gentleman, this is a football.”
Early in my ministry with you, I wanted to talk with you about the fundamentals, the basics, the football. I wanted to talk with you about the sine qua nons of the Church’s existence, the “without-which-nots,” the seven practices or habits every Christian congregation must adhere to and hone and sharpen, and without which the Church simply can’t be the Church. So a sermon series entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches.
You can tell that I am alluding to Stephen Covey’s magisterial book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This year marks the 25th anniversary of a strikingly simple but uncommonly thoughtful book which over the last 25 years has sold 25 million copies in 40 languages. Before he died in 2012, Stephen Covey had acted as a consultant to over half of America’s Fortune 500 companies.
Mr. Covey’s seven habits are different from mine, of course. His are administrative and personal; mine are ecclesiastical. Moreover, Mr. Covey was interested in effectiveness, whereas God, I suspect, is more interested in faithfulness. Effectiveness, or success, is different from faithfulness. An interrogator once asked Mother Theresa why she kept at the hopeless task of saving the wretched lepers of Calcutta when she was doomed from the very beginning to abject failure, and she replied, “God has not called me to be successful, but to be faithful.” So that’s what these are: the seven habits of highly faithfulchurches.
And since today is Pentecost, the most evangelistically triumphant day in the long history of the Christian Church, let’s start with our least favorite of the Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches: Evangelism. Now, I know that liberal Protestants like us almost wince when we hear that word. We are not evangelicals; we are not intrusive; we are polite; we are politically correct.
Someone once estimated that the average Episcopalian invites a friend to church once every 28 years. I don’t know how you verify a statistic like that, but it seems to be accurate, don’t you think?
My friend Jack Stewart, Professor Emeritus at Princeton Seminary, says that Presbyterians have the same attitude towards faith-sharing that the U. S. Military used to have toward gay people: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
You remember what Woody Hayes said when they asked him why he never passed the football at Ohio State? You can actually get a lot of wisdom from football coaches, if you listen. Woody Hayes, famous for grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust football with Ohio State running backs like Archie Griffin, said “There are three things that can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”
He’s right about that: you can complete the pass, give up a down on an incompletion, or turn over the ball on an interception; two of them are bad. Same thing when you share your faith with a friend or a stranger: you might convince them, but then again you might bore them or make them mad; two of them are bad.
Evangelism is not our favorite faithful habit, but where would we be without it? Well, I’ll tell you where we’d be without it: just where we are. The liberal Protestant Church in America is dying a slow and painful death by attrition. In 2012, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), announced that for the first time in maybe a hundred years, maybe as much as 200 years, our membership has dropped below two million. That means that less than one percent of Americans are now Presbyterian; in the early days of our nation, one in ten Americans was a Presbyterian.
And how about Kenilworth Union? Do you ever have to fight for a seat here on any day but Easter and Christmas Eve? How many of us have drifted silently away in the last seven years to other congregations or to nothing at all?
I know it’s hard to share your faith, and I know that people like us wince when they hear the word Evangelism because it’s done so aggressively and so badly by other segments of the Christian Church, but would it help you to know where the word comes from? I think it will. The English word ‘evangelism’ comes straight from the Greek word euangelion, and you know what that means. Go ahead and take it apart: the Greek prefix e-u, eu, as in ‘eulogy’ (‘good word’) and ‘euphemism’ (‘good phrase’) and ‘euthanasia’ (‘good death’)–so e-u, eu, for ‘good’ and then the Greek word angelion, as in ‘angel’–a ‘messenger’. Euangelion then is ‘good message,’ ‘Good News’.
Evangelism is simply sharing why you are a Christian, why Jesus Christ has made a difference in your life, why you choose to spend your precious hours and scant days among his disciples at this particular church.
There are some painless ways for liberal Protestants to evangelize. One of the most delightful forms of evangelism is to have babies, or at least the conception part is fun, if not the 22 years of hard labor that necessarily follow the conception part, and so we baptize babies and raise them as Christians.
Conceiving babies is a sexy way to do evangelism. A good website like ours is good evangelism. You can use social media, like my younger and more competent colleagues are learning to do here. It will help when we put a sign on the front lawn. We’ve got to make it easier for people to find us.
A friend from my Grand Rapids days heard that I was going to be the new senior minister at Kenilworth Union. She’s like 32 years old and has a new baby and a husband and lives in Evanston, 3.7 miles from this church, so the first Sunday after my name was announced here, she and her husband got in the car and their GPS led them straight to 211 Kenilworth Avenue, but they never knew if they were in the right church until someone handed them a bulletin because they didn’t notice on the way in the tiny brick in the wall which is the only thing outside the church that tells anyone what church it is. My friend is our most valued customer: 32 years old with a husband and a baby; she will be a contributing member of this church as long as she lives in Evanston, but she found us almost by accident.
You can have babies and you can have websites and you can have Facebook, and you can have church signs, but that’s all just a drop in the bucket; all of it put together makes only a marginal contribution. The overwhelming majority of first-time visitors to a church come because a friend invited them. Are you doing your part, or will you wait 28 years like the average Episcopalian?
I think there are a couple of things we can learn from the Pentecost story. It’s a long passage–almost a thousand words; if I didn’t do a little judicious editing for you, it would have taken me about eight minutes to read the whole story, or about half as long as this sermon. And it’s a dense and fecund passage; Luke revs up his theological imagination and metaphor machine into overdrive to tell the story, but let me lift up two images from the story.
Here’s how it all goes down: Before it was a Christian festival, Pentecost was a Jewish festival, called the Feast of Weeks, a high holiday, an occasion for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the far corners of the Empire, so Jerusalem is full of revelers and merry-makers, and God chooses just this day to bless a tiny band of disheartened Jesus-people with the gift of Holy Ghost.
St Luke tells us that they started the day with 120 aimless disciples and ended it with 3000 converts. One word picture Luke employs to get across the meaning of Pentecost is the image of fire. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them,” Luke tells us. It’s as if the electrical wiring in that Upper Room just went haywire and sent a dazzling phosphorescence bouncing off the walls, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have electricity in first-century Jerusalem, so there must be an extra-terrestrial explanation. Sparks fly. Smoldering embers burst into flashing flames. What is dead springs to life. What is cold and stiff becomes warm and spry. From around the world people will come to spread their frost-bitten fingers toward the warmth of this hearth. Fire is one word-picture Luke gives us.
So would it kill you to show a little enthusiasm in your discipleship? Maybe; we act like it sometime. They asked the famous skeptic Frederick Nietzsche why the Christians never succeeded in converting him to faith in Jesus, and Dr. Nietzsche replied, “His disciples should look more redeemed.” Yes? You know that’s where the word enthusiasm comes from, right? Enthusiasm– en theos–‘in God’. Make it clear that you are in God.
I’ll give you a sweet if modest example. Whenever I need something from Walgreen’s–or Binnie’s–in Hubbard Woods near my house, I walk, because it gives me an excuse to walk the dog, so Dudley the golden retriever comes with me, and sometimes when we do that, we stop in to say ‘hi’ to Bill and Jennifer Jenkins at Love Fur Dogs, their canine beauty salon next to Walgreen’s. When they opened the business a few weeks ago, they asked me to bless it with a prayer, and I did, and in exchange for a 45-second prayer, Dudley got a three-hour beauty makeover, bath included. He’s never looked as good before or since.
So now and then we stop in at Love Fur Dogs to say ‘hi’; Dudley loves it because he always gets a biscuit, and yesterday we were standing there chatting and another customer comes in with a tiny dog about the size of Dudley’s head and Jennifer says to the customer, “This is Dudley Evertsberg; he was our first customer; and this is Bill, the pastor of our church; he blessed our business with a prayer when we opened.”
You know, it wasn’t an eloquent sermon in Jerusalem which converted 3000 people to Jesus; it was just a simple and unthreatening way of saying to a virtual stranger “I am a person of faith; my church is important to me; God’s blessing is important to me.” You don’t have to hand out Kenilworth Union business cards or Bibles or pamphlets on “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Just say, “I am enthused, en theos; I am ‘in God’.” You know how in their singing and in their speech the Jenkins words are just infused with faith in God and love for Jesus? That’s what I’m talking about.
And the second word-picture Luke gives us is comprehensibility. On that first Pentecost 2,014 years ago, Peter suddenly, miraculously becomes multi-lingual. It’s as if he’s been preparing for a trip around the world, and I guess that’s just what he was preparing for. Everybody in the huge crowd hears Peter’s sermon in her own native tongue. Where once the human race was a Babel of mutually incomprehensible tongues, now the story of Jesus is a universal message fit for and offered to every child of God.
So just tell your story in your own lucid, transparent, universally comprehensible tongue. You don’t have to be a theologian to share your faith. You don’t have to master all those sesquipedalian theological words academics are so fond of. You don’t have to talk about the categorical imperative or the eschatological imperative or the ontological argument of the teleological argument. You just have to tell your own sweet, inimitable, winsome story.
Someone on your street just moved to town and maybe he’s lonely and needs a community of friendship and faith. Someone in your office just got divorced and she’s hurt and vulnerable and needs God’s grace. Someone in your book group just got bad news from the doctor and she’s scared and confused and needs the shelter and nurture of the people of God. Someone at your health club just lost his job and needs to hear the Good News that God is not finished with him yet. Someone in your class at New Trier has never really had any good friends and feels fairly worthless and might be saved, literally saved, by an open and accepting and clique-less youth group. Someone you know needs Jesus bad. Why don’t you share the Good News about this church?
Legend has it that when we all get to the Day of Reckoning and approach the Golden Gates with fear and trembling, we will have to give an account of accomplishments, and convince the Angel Gabriel that we deserve to be admitted, and legend has it that even Jesus had to make a reckoning on his last day. And so Gabriel asks Jesus of Nazareth, “So young man, what have you accomplished in your 33 years of life?”
Well, what does Jesus say? You know, he began in a stable, ended on a cross, and spent all the time between hanging out with humble peasants and wretched lowlifes. There’s an uncomfortable silence while Jesus considers the question, and finally he says, “Well, I’ve left behind a band of eleven faithful disciples.” Gabriel waits for more, but gets nothing, and finally frowns and says “Is that all?” And Jesus says, “It’s enough.” It was enough, and it always will be.
Though significantly adapted, this quote came to me from a sermon called “Great Expectations,” by Millicent C. Feske, in Pulpit Digest, May/June, 1990, p. 37.