FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 10

Chapter 10

How can I share my faith?

 

Let me describe a situation and ask how you would respond. Let’s suppose that you are a missionary arriving for service in a coun­try you have never visited. Although you didn’t plan to visit the cap­ital city, your itinerary was changed suddenly and now you find yourself alone in a place filled with people whose education and intel­ligence equals your own—and in many cases surpasses it. The city is filled with people discussing art and debating philosophy. They love it when someone proposes a new idea because it means they have something to argue about during the hot afternoon hours. People come from many countries to join the ongoing discussion and to admire the many works of art that line the streets.

You are the first Christian ever to visit this world-class city. There are no churches, no Christian bookstores, and no Christian radio sta­tions. You can’t find a Christian symbol of any kind in the entire city. You venture further, walking down one street, then another, mar­veling at the statues and reading the many inscriptions. It is very clear that the people in this city have never heard of Jesus Christ. If you say his name, all you get in return is a blank stare. They know nothing about his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, or his ascension into heaven.

You are the first Christian in this city and you are the only Christian. No one came before you to prepare the way. No one invited you to come. No one expected your arrival. No one welcomed your appearance. Here you are in the center of the greatest city in the world representing Jesus Christ.

What will you do? Where will you stay? How will you find an opening for the gospel? Let me repeat that you never intended to come to this city, but your plans changed and here you are. The people of this city pride themselves on their intellect, their culture, and their philosophy. No one comes in and teaches them anything. In modern terms, they have “home court advantage.”

What will you do now? Where will you begin? How will you find someone to talk to? And who will listen to your message?

 

• You could hold a tent meeting, but who would come?

• You could show Billy Graham films, but who is Billy Graham to them?

• You could put up a sign advertising a new church, which in this case would be absolutely correct since the new church would also be the first church.

• You could go door-to-door. That’s always a good idea, espe­cially if your goal is to listen as least as much as you talk.

• You could rent a meeting room in a local hotel, post some fliers, and invite passersby to attend your services.

• You could pray for some kind of shocking event, such as an earthquake, that would give you a platform to minister to people physically and spiritually.

 

Or you might decide to take a pass and enjoy a few days of unplanned vacation. After all, you never planned to come here and you don’t have any friends who can introduce you to the movers and shakers. And most of all, your coworkers are scattered in other places, so whatever you do, you’re going to have to do all alone. To be per­fectly honest, many of us would choose the latter course of action. Big cities are hard enough to reach when you have a team. When you are by yourself, they can seem overwhelming.

 

The World Has Come to the Cities

I live in a suburb of the city of Chicago, but my home is only one-half mile from the city limits. In the village of Oak Park, just over 53,000 people live in an area of 4.5 square miles. We’re squeezed together and sometimes it seems as if we’re on top of one another. Eight million people live in greater Chicago, which makes it one of the largest cities in America.

Today the world is moving to the cities. As of the year 2000, for the first time in history more than 50 percent of the world’s popula­tion lives in a city. That’s up from just 9 percent in 1900. In 1997 the New York Times reported that one New York neighborhood contained people from 123 different countries. That’s two-thirds of the nations of the world represented in just one zip code.13

What is true of New York is also true of London, Miami, Mexico City, Singapore, New Delhi, and Nairobi. The world is moving to the cities, which means that almost every town is becoming a miniature United Nations. It also means that you don’t have to go overseas to encounter the kind of situation I described. All you have to do is go next door or to the next cubicle at work or look to the person seated two rows away in school. The cities, which once were melting pots, have now become stew pots where every imaginable religious point of view can be found.

Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” For two thousand years Christians have been trying to obey that command. If you combine all the people who call them­selves Christians from all the various groups and denominations, the total comes to just under two billion. That sounds good until you consider that there are more than six billion people in the world. And I’m not even going to consider at this point how many of those two billion Christians actually have a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Even giving ourselves the maximum benefit of the doubt, we’ve still got two-thirds of the world left to reach.

Before I go any further, let me say plainly that this is not a chap­ter about becoming a missionary to some distant land. I’m not going to ask you to volunteer to go to Bolivia or Finland or Bangladesh. I have the highest respect for the men and women who volunteer as missionaries, but that’s not what this is about.

So what am I talking about? Perhaps an illustration will make things clear. On a recent cable news program, the host read a letter from a viewer complaining that he had said there is no such thing as absolute truth. The viewer wrote to object, pointing out that the Bible is the Word of God and thus the standard for measuring right and wrong. The host smiled and said, “Perhaps it is for you, but not necessarily for everyone else.” For the moment, let’s not quibble about how the Bible can be the Word of God for one person and not for another. Just focus on the thought itself. The man is obviously well-educated and articulate. He delivered his one-sentence answer as if it were the most obvious truth in the world. His “true for you but not true for me” comment has virtually become the slogan of this generation. My question is this: How do you share Christ with a per­son who doesn’t believe in absolute truth? Thirty years ago educated skeptics loved to argue; today they have a “Big Tent” religion where everyone is partly right and no one is totally wrong.

This chapter is about the challenge of reaching our friends and neighbors with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with the assump­tion that many people we rub shoulders with every day have little or no knowledge of genuine Christianity. In many cases what little they know has been mixed with strange versions of postmodern pragmatism. They value experience above doctrine and tolerance above truth. They are willing to listen, but they hate to make up their minds.

And that brings me back to the earlier scenario, which in some ways isn’t far from the truth. For millions of people today, Christianity simply doesn’t figure into their thinking one way or the other. If you were the first Christian to visit a major city, what would you do? Where would you begin?

You should know that I didn’t make up this story. What I described is precisely the situation a man named Paul faced when he came alone to the city of Athens. We know he was alone from his comments in 1 Thessalonians 3:1. We know what he did from the record in Acts 17:16-34. Those nineteen verses tell of one of the most dramatic encounters in the history of the Christian faith. Wilbur Smith comments that relatively few men ever change the world. Most men live and die without making even a small ripple, and they leave no trace when they are gone. Not so with Paul. His ministry changed the world forever—and it is still changed twenty centuries later because of what he did in Athens.

 

A City Full of Idols

Most of us know Athens as the cradle of Western civilization. When we think of Athens, names like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Sophocles, and Aristophanes come to mind. These are men whose words are still studied in every major university in the world. In Paul’s day there were three great universities in the Roman Empire—Tarsus, Alexandria, and the greatest of all in Athens. Here you could find the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, and the Garden of Epicurus.

We also connect Athens with Mount Olympus and the pantheon of Greek gods such as Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite. During the golden age of Pericles, the Athenians built the renowned Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, the massive hill dominating the city. They also built statues in honor of their gods on almost every corner. According to Pliny, there were more than thirty thousand statues in Athens. Petronius says that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. Pausanius adds that there were more statues of gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece.

Most of those were built several hundred years before the New Testament era. By the time Paul arrived sometime in the year A.D. 50, Athens was in the late afternoon of its glory. Though Rome was the capital of the empire, Athens was the intellectual and cultural capital of the world.

We pick up the story in Acts 17:16: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul never intended to come to Athens—and certainly not alone. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive. Since he had some time on his hands, he toured the city, saw its many famous sites, and concluded it was “full of idols.” That phrase is actually one word in Greek—an unusual word that means the city was completely given over to idol worship. Eugene Peterson says that Athens was “a junk­yard of idols" {The Message). The Athenians would have been shocked by this assessment because they didn’t consider these marvelous works of art to be idols. They erected statues in honor of their gods— and to aid in the worship of those gods. To call them idols seems degrading for objects so stunningly beautiful. But Paul wasn’t fooled by their outward appearance. He knew an idol when he saw one— and in Athens he saw a city wholly given over to idolatry. Wilbur Smith comments that “a man’s character, a man’s interest, the pur­poses of a man’s life, will determine what he sees, wherever he goes.”14 Some saw works of art; Paul saw idols.

 

A “Gut” Reaction

What you look for determines what you see; what you see deter­mines what you feel; what you feel determines what you do. Paul had a single eye for the glory of God, and therefore when he saw statues honoring false gods, he wasn’t fooled by their beauty; he knew they were idols. Verse 16 tells us he was “greatly distressed.” It’s a very strong word that describes a deep emotional reaction to the idolatry of Athens. It is a combination of anger and sadness. It’s the same word used in the Old Testament to describe God’s anger over the sin of his people.

Not long ago I spoke to the Jos-ECWA Theological Seminary in Jos, Nigeria. When I explained the meaning of “greatly distressed,” I stepped from behind the pulpit and began to rub my belly in circles. Immediately the students, men and women from across West Africa, began to make a kind of humming noise as they listened. The provost told me later that to speak of deep emotion as coming from the lower abdomen is a very African concept. It means an emotional reaction that goes beyond the head and reaches to the depths of the body. That’s what Paul felt when he saw Athens filled with idols.

What does it take to make you angry? Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is a time for everything,” which means there is a time for anger. There is a time to be silent and then there is a time to speak out against moral corruption and sinful pride. The men of Athens thought they had built the greatest city on earth—the epitome of pagan humanism. It was if they had erected a sign that read, “Welcome to Athens: City of a Thousand Gods.” Paul got angry when he toured Athens. His moral conscience was offended by their pagan idol worship. It didn’t matter to him that the Parthenon was one of the wonders of the ancient world or that this was the hometown of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What good was the human mind unless it was offered up in the serv­ice of the living God? And why praise the work of men whose archi­tecture exists to honor pagan deities?

 

A Time for Anger

There are some things that ought to make us angry. We ought to be angry at the legalized killing of the unborn. We ought to be angry about the celebration of homosexuality in our society. We ought to be angry about rampant divorce, deadbeat dads, broken homes, child abuse, spouse abuse, racial prejudice, moral apostasy by so-called Christian leaders, dishonesty in high places, and the brutal treatment of the poor and the homeless. Most of all, we ought to be angry when we see God’s name mocked, his Word ignored, and his people perse­cuted around the world.

The ability to get angry about the right things at the right time in the right way is one sign of good mental health. Paul didn’t lose his temper, but on the other hand he didn’t turn away and say, “Well, it’s a beautiful city. I think I’ll go somewhere else and preach.” He wasn’t fooled by the splendor of Athens. He saw behind the beauty to the emptiness of idol worship. Then he determined to do something about it.

So Paul now takes on Athens. It’s David versus Goliath all over again. Only this time there’s one David surrounded by a thousand Goliaths.

 

Debating in the Synagogue

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God­-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). This verse reveals Paul’s basic strategy in Athens. First, he started on the most familiar terri­tory by going to the Jewish synagogue in Athens. There he reasoned with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks. The word reasoned actu­ally means “to debate.” It has the idea of discussing issues of impor­tance with a view to winning another person to your own point of view. This is not just a breezy chat where you give your opinion and I give mine and we both walk away happy. This was a serious debate over issues of eternal importance. In this case, it meant that Paul used the Old Testament to show the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.

This was Paul’s strategy everywhere he went. Since he himself was a Jew, it was only natural that he started by trying to reach his own people (cf. Rom. 9:1-3). He knew their language and shared the same background. He could “talk the talk” with the best of them. If they wanted to quote Rabbi So-and-so, Paul could answer that quote by quoting a half-dozen other rabbis. He knew the Old Testament as well as they did and he could debate it for hours, always with a view to leading his countrymen to faith in Christ.

 

Start Where You Are

Paul’s first step makes sense for those who want to share Christ. Start where you are and reach the people who are nearest to you. Recently I had lunch with a man who directs Executive Ministries in the Chicago area for Campus Crusade for Christ. They set up meet­ings where top-level Christian businessmen and women can invite their unsaved friends to a banquet at a home or a nice hotel, have a lovely meal, and then hear a gifted speaker share Christ. Sometimes it’s a sports figure or it might be a well-known business figure or a Christian from the political arena. In that kind of setting, high-powered businesspeople come to Christ because they feel com­fortable hearing the gospel. As we ate lunch, I heard some amazing stories of highly-educated, highly-placed executives coming to Christ in great numbers through this ministry.

That was on Wednesday. On Thursday I spent two hours visiting Circle Urban Ministries. We walked through their buildings on Central Avenue in the Austin Community on the west side of Chicago. 1 saw with my own eyes the miracles being wrought in human lives through eleven separate ministries, including a medical clinic, a legal aid clinic, a tutoring program, a food pantry, and a Christian school. They are also reclaiming abandoned buildings used by drug dealers and gang members and turning them into affordable housing.

You could hardly find a cultural setting more different from the Executive Ministry of Campus Crusade. But the principle is exactly the same. You start where you are and you reach out to friends, your coworkers, your neighbors, and your family. Every summer Circle Urban Ministries reaches hundreds of people during their annual harvest festival when they put up a huge tent and have meetings, meals, and gospel services all day long for a week. That is good evan­gelism. It’s peer to peer, friend to friend, family to family. Evangelism begins by reaching out to the people you know the best. That’s what Paul did in Athens.

 

In the Marketplace

But Paul didn’t stop there. Acts 17:17 says that he also discussed Christ in the marketplace with anyone he happened to meet. There’s a particular name for the place where he went. In Greek it’s called the Agora. If you go to Athens today, you’ll find that the Agora is still there after two thousand years. It’s a section of town near the Acropolis with narrow streets and lots of shops and restaurants crowded together. That’s where people gathered in ancient Athens. Men and women would go to the Agora to shop, to meet their friends, to catch up on the latest news, and to discuss philosophy and religion.

That’s where Paul went. But remember that he didn’t know a sin­gle person in Athens. This wasn’t like a Billy Graham crusade where they start three years in advance with a team of people moving into town to lay the groundwork for Mr. Graham. It’s true that Paul had his team, but at this moment Timothy and Silas were somewhere else. Paul had to do his own advance work. Our text tells us that he went to the Agora day after day, chatting with anyone who would stop to talk to him. In doing this, he was following the practice of Socrates, who went to the same place several hundred years earlier to discuss philosophy using the Socratic method—questions and answers.

What do you do in a strange town when you want to share Christ? You find out where the action is and you go there. It’s as sim­ple as that. In our day, the place where the action is might be the mall, or it might be a college campus, or it might be an Internet dis­cussion group, or it might be the cafeteria at lunch, or it might be around the water cooler, or it might be a public park, or it might be in the bleachers between innings at a Little League game.

 

Someday Soon

Each year our village sponsors an event called May Madness. The organizers close Main Street for several blocks and set up carnival rides and food stands. Various bands play from a number of makeshift stages. Always there are thousands of people milling around. One year a band called Someday Soon played on the central stage in the park at the center of all the festivities. Who or what is Someday Soon? It’s a band made up of students who attend a youth group called Allied Force. For an hour they played Christian music—loudly! Since I know most of the teenagers, I went to give them support. It’s not my style of music, which is good because the audience was almost entirely under the age of twenty. They chose music that talked about the need to know Jesus Christ personally. At the end of their set, one young man told the audience that the band was all about relationships—and that the most important relationship in the world is knowing God.

As I looked around the park, I saw lots of people who have no interest in visiting the church I pastor. And yet there they were, lis­tening to Christian music in the center of our village.

I think the apostle Paul would heartily approve. He might not understand the music, but he would approve taking the gospel out into the marketplace of life. That day in Oak Park, May Madness was an agora—a place where ideas could be presented and discussed. Those teenagers were doing exactly what Paul did when he visited Athens two thousand years ago.

 

Cleverly Disguised Missionaries

What does all this mean for us today? I want to suggest one pri­mary application: Every Christian is a missionary just like Paul, only most of us are cleverly disguised as something else. Paul was a mis­sionary who didn’t look like a missionary. He looked like a Jew from Tarsus, which is what he was. And for all anyone knew, he was just one more visitor coming to see the glories of Athens and to gaze on the splendor of its architecture and join in the philosophical discus­sions. When people saw Paul, they didn’t think, “Aha! There’s a mis­sionary. I can spot one a mile away.”

That’s a key point, isn’t it? The best missionaries don’t look like mis­sionaries at all. Paul looked like a tourist, and no one knew differently until he opened his mouth. Then suddenly everyone knew he was a man on a mission from God. The same should be true of you and me.

One evening while I was crossing the street near the center of Oak Park, a woman with three children stopped me and said, “Hi, Pastor Ray.” I didn’t recognize her until she said her name. She invited me to stop by and visit the cheesecake shop she and her husband operated sev­eral blocks away. We chatted for a bit and then she went one way and I went another. A few minutes later I was walking home when I passed by their shop. I went inside and immediately noticed a sign above the counter with two verses from Proverbs and a point to ponder. They put it where every customer was bound to see it. Her husband greeted me and told me about their business. Soon she came in and explained the sign on the chalkboard. Lots of people comment about it—most like it, but some people have said, “That offends me,” and they leave the store. A close friend once asked, “Why do you have that sign? You’re not in the ministry.” “Oh yes we are,” she replied. “This is our ministry.”

 

Should I Talk to an Atheist?

She’s right. She and her husband are missionaries cleverly dis­guised as the proprietors of a cheesecake store. They look just like everyone else until you go in their store, and then you discover they’re undercover missionaries for Jesus who happen to sell cheesecake on the side.

It’s the same with all of us. We’re all missionaries. Some of us are cleverly disguised as doctors, teachers, sales reps, athletes, secretaries, nurses, lawyers, professors, homemakers, senior citizens, junior high school students, high school students, college students, graduate students, small business owners, administrators, shift workers, plant managers, and department heads. On and on the list goes. If some­one asks you, “What do you do?” there’s only one biblical answer: “I’m a missionary for Jesus Christ cleverly disguised as _______”

 

After a worship service, a woman told me that she had been talk­ing with a friend who says he is an atheist. She also said that her Christian friends advised her not to talk to him again because he could drag her down spiritually. She wanted to know if she should talk to him even though he is an atheist. What do you think Paul would say? If we all refuse to talk to non-Christians, how will they ever hear the gospel? If they don’t hear the gospel, how will they ever be saved?

In an earlier chapter I mentioned my friend Steve Meyer and his battle with a serious form of cancer. As I write these words he has fin­ished the bone-marrow transplant and is now home recovering. When I went to see him in the hospital, he was only a few days past the transplant procedure. To be perfectly honest, he looked awful, and that’s putting it mildly. His hair had fallen out, he was bloated from the radiation, and he appeared to have a very bad suntan from the radiation that destroyed his bone marrow. His voice was barely a whisper. For two or three days he had lived on morphine to handle the pain. But now he was feeling a bit better.

Steve wanted me to read an E-mail from his stepdaughter. She was engaged to be married, but her fiancé was not a born-again Christian even though he had been raised in a Christian church. Two nights earlier she and her fiancé had come by to visit Steve in the hos­pital. She went with her mother to the cafeteria, leaving Steve and her fiancé alone. They struck up a conversation, and Steve asked him if he knew Christ as his personal Savior. He didn’t. So Steve proceeded to explain the gospel to him—right there in the bone-marrow trans­plant unit at Rush Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago. When he fin­ished, they prayed together and the young man trusted Christ as his Savior. Several weeks later this young man came to see me on Sunday morning, his face filled with the joy of one who has found new life in Christ.

What struck me as Steve told this story was his excitement at how God had opened the door for him to share Christ. He was fighting for his own life, but the only thing he wanted to talk about was how his future son-in-law had found the Lord.

Sharing Christ isn’t about how much you know; it’s about taking the natural opportunities God gives you to tell someone else the Good News. All you need to do is start where you are and walk through the doors as God opens them one by one. There are hungry hearts all around, ready to listen if only someone would care enough to share Christ with them.

The cities and towns of today look a lot like Athens in the New Testament. They have become havens for every strange “ism” of mod­ern life. This generation is on the cutting edge of societal evolution— and it’s not always a pretty picture. If Paul were to visit your town, he would be provoked for the same reason he was provoked in Athens. Lives are being ruined by idolatry, and people worship idols because they do not know the living God.

Do we care? Are our hearts stirred as Paul’s was? What you look for determines what you see. Some people see art; Paul saw idols. Our challenge is the same today. The Lord Jesus can’t be here in person so he’s delegated you and me to represent him where we live. Open your eyes. Look around. You can’t reach everyone, but you can reach some­one. Start where you are and you will be surprised as God leads you to hungry hearts and open doors. On every hand people need the Lord. Who will tell them if we don’t?

 

A Truth to Remember:

Every Christian is a missionary just like Paul, only most of us are cleverly disguised as some­thing else.

 

Going Deeper

1. The world has come to us. Think about your friends, neigh­bors, acquaintances, coworkers, and classmates. How many different nationalities and ethnic groups are represented in your own circle of influence? As far as you know, how many of them have a religious background different from your own?

2. How would you answer a person who says, “The Bible may be the Word of God for you, but it’s not the Word of God for me r

3. Name some of the “idols” of contemporary society. Which ones stir up your spirit to anger and sorrow? Why?

4. Think about your city, your town, your neighborhood, your classroom, your dormitory. Name three of the prevailing spir­itual values of the people who live in your contemporary “Athens.” How much (or how little) do they understand about the gospel of Jesus Christ?

5. Name five creative ways you could “start where you are” in reaching others for Christ. Then write down the names of five people you would like to see come to Christ. Ask God to show you where you should begin in sharing your faith with them.

6. Complete this phrase: “I’m a missionary for Jesus Christ clev­erly disguised as _____.”

 

Taking Action

Before reading any further, take a shot at the imaginary scenario from the first part of this chapter. You’ve just gotten off the plane in some great city of the world. As far as you know, you are the first Christian ever to visit. And you are by yourself. What will you do? Where will you begin? What strategy will you follow?
 
Want instant access to all of the questions and answers? FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About the Christian Life is available in ebook format for the Kindle, Nook, or Ipad. Purchase your copy here!
 

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