Want to Reach People for Christ? Ask Questions

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I attended a church in a denomination that was, let’s say, gung-ho about evangelism. I can remember one night hopping into a church van and going into downtown Baltimore to “witness” to people by handing out tracts.

Being 14 at the time, and a fairly new Christian, I wasn’t very good at “witnessing.” I would walk up to people, shove a tract in their hand, and then turn very quickly and walk away from them. Even if someone wanted to talk about what I had just handed them.

My most vivid memory of that night was being left behind by the church van in downtown Baltimore, and needing to figure out how to get home. Yes, the church people left me behind!

As a more mature Christian, and a more avid student of words, and The Word, I can look back on that night and realize how fruitless that kind of evangelism was. I was in a strange place, passing out little pieces of paper telling strangers whom I’d never see again that they were going to hell. Some “witness,” right?

When you think of the word “witness,” what comes to mind? For me, the most obvious thought is a person who testifies in a court of law about something they’ve seen or heard. A lawyer calls a witness to the stand, and asks them questions about whatever is pertinent, and the witness answers.

That’s what we, as Christians, should be doing as witnesses of Jesus Christ.

I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that is in you.” In the context of the passage, Peter is talking about our actions when we are persecuted or slandered. We are told in verse 9 not to “repay evil for evil,” but to “bless…that you may obtain blessing.” In other words, in JESUS’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

Let’s note what Peter is saying.

First, “always be prepared to give an answer.” Some translations say “always be prepared to make a defense.” I like “give an answer,” mostly because it doesn’t sound so “defensive.”

Peter is telling us that people will ask us about our hope. We don’t have to shove a tract in their hand or preach at them. What we need to do is live our lives so conspicuously as disciples of Christ that people WANT to ask us…maybe NEED to ask us what it is that makes us hopeful in Christ.

We are to be prepared to give an answer “to anyone who asks.” This is where the preparation part comes in. Do you know how to talk to all of the people who are in your sphere of influence? Let me suggest that knowing how to answer anyone who asks means knowing who’s asking.

We should be cultivating relationships with people. We should be willing to get to know them, and more importantly, we should be vulnerable enough to allow them to get to know us. I cringe when I hear of people talking about trying to have a “relationship” with someone for the sole purpose of trying to convert them. My brothers and sisters, this is not how it ought to be! Jesus didn’t say “love your enemy unless they won’t convert, then blow them off.” If you’re trying to have a “relationship” with someone only to try to get them to become Christians, you’re doing relationship wrong.

Once we get to the point where we are in a relationship with someone who notices our hope, and starts asking questions about it, then we’re ready to share the Gospel with them, right?

Well, sort of.

When people start asking you questions about your faith, it’s a good idea to know where they’re coming from, because sometimes a question ISN’T just a question.

When most people ask questions about your faith, they’re coming from a specific background with specific experiences. Sometimes, a person will ask about your faith because their loved one has died of an incurable disease, and they want to know why. Or a person who has been burned by churches and Christians in the past might be looking for answers about church and Christians.

So, when someone asks questions about your faith, start by asking questions back. Get an understanding of why they’re asking the question. Get the subtext. Then you can start to share your faith at their level, where they are on their spiritual journey, and you can avoid discussions that get nowhere, or that cause the person to retreat deeper behind their spiritual wall.

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Who Do You Trust?

This is an excerpt of a message I gave to NewCreation Church as I prepared to step into the position of pastor. The message was on change and trust, and the need for a congregation to get to know and trust their new pastor, and for the new pastor to get to know and trust his new congregation.

The gospel of Matthew give a great example of what it means to trust. This example is in Matthew 14:22-33. It’s the story of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm, while the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in their boat.

Jesus and his disciples had taken a boat ride to go off by themselves after the death of John the Baptist. They were grieving the loss of their friend, and Jesus’ cousin, at the hands of King Herod, and they needed to get away.

But as they traveled across the Sea of Galilee, people heard about it, and started making their way on foot to where Jesus was.
Now the last time we knew about where Jesus was is in Matthew 13, when he had been teaching in his hometown of Nazareth.

So if we look at a map of the area, we can see that Jesus was probably somewhere around the southwest part of the Sea of Galilee when he left, and he probably headed northeast, to the mountain areas along the east shore. Map-Israel-New-Testament-Times
Now, the Sea of Galilee is about 13 miles from north to south, and about 8 miles at its widest from east to west. Really it was more of a big lake than a Sea. But those who went on foot to follow Jesus could have walked for 10 miles or more to get to him when he got off the boat on the other side.
matthew_beginning_of_jesus_ministry

Of course, when he arrived and saw all the people…the bible says 5,000 men, plus women and children, he was filled with compassion for them, and he healed the sick, and ended up serving up a massive meal with five loaves of bread and two small fish.
So we’re caught up to Matthew 14:22.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.

When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.
The Sea of Galilee is known for its squalls…the wind storms tend to blow south to north, when hot air from the basin in the south gets mixed with the cooler air from the western mountains.

The disciples were trying to cross to Gennesaret, which is on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The winds were coming from the south, and pushing the tides northward. So the disciples were trying to cross a huge lake while the current was pushing against the left side of the boat.

When I worked at a camp for juveniles in Florida, every six to twelve weeks we would plan out a two-to-three week river trip down the Suwanee River. “Way down upon the Suwanee River…all the live-long day!”

We were on a 21-day trip down the Suwanee when Hurricane Andrew hit. I don’t know how many of you remember Andrew, but it was a pretty awesome storm. Category five. Top windspeeds of 175 miles per hour. The eye of the storm hit southern Florida, but the effects of the storm were felt all the way up to South Carolina before it made its way into the Gulf of Mexico and hit Louisiana.

When the storm came up, the river current went from about 2 miles an hour to about 10 miles an hour very quickly. I was in the lead canoe, and we had to pull off the river. Unfortunately, we overshot the place where we wanted to pull off. One of the guys was able to grab on to a low hanging tree branch so we wouldn’t go any further, but all of us had to paddle with everything we had for about 50 yards to get the canoe to a pullout point.

This is what the disciples were paddling through, except instead of heading directly against the current, they were trying to go about 10 miles northeast to southwest while the current was coming up from the south, rowing a flat-bottomed fishing boat that would have only been about four and a half feet tall. They would be taking on water, battling the winds, straining with the rudder (if they had one) to try to keep the boat headed in the right direction.

We know they left before evening, which would have been around 6pm if they’d had clocks. But they would have left before what they would have called the first watch of the night.

The watches of the night were usually broken into about three hour segments…6pm to 9pm was the first watch. Then 9pm to midnight, then midnight to 3am.

According to Matthew 14:25,
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.

The fourth watch of the night was between 3am and 6am. The disciples left before 6pm. They were still “a long way from land” when Jesus came to them at least nine hours later!

The disciples had to be exhausted from trying to get the boat to cooperate, bailing water over the sides, and basically just trying to keep the boat from capsizing. So is it any wonder that we read,

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Yes, it’s true. The disciples saw Jesus like this
Scoobyghosts

They were terrified! These were men of the water. They grew up hearing tales of ghosts and monsters in the water from the culture around them. They were exhausted, and here was someone walking toward them. On the water! Not IN the water. ON THE WATER!

But Jesus spoke to them, the bible says “immediately.”
“Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

I don’t know if they stopped being afraid. But we read that

…Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

We look at Peter’s statement, and we can’t help but see the faith he’s showing in Jesus. “Command me to come to you on the water.” Don’t ask me, but command me. At this one moment, Peter has completely put his trust in Jesus, his master. He got out of the boat, and look at this…

HE WALKED ON THE WATER.

Several years ago, John Ortberg wrote a book
called “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got To Get Out Of The Boat.”

JohnOrtbergWalkOnWaterBook

I love the title and the message it conveys. If you want to exhibit your total and complete trust in Jesus, you’ve got to leave the relative safety of the boat.

The boat is still keeping Peter from drowning. It’s keeping him above the water. It’s keeping him safe. But Peter steps out of the boat, out of the safety of the man-made vessel that he’s put his trust in all his life, and he stands on the waves and walks toward Jesus.
But Peter’s faith started to fail him, as he looked at the water, as he saw the effects of the winds on the waves, maybe as he looked back at the boat that had safely carried him this far.

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter started to sink. He started thinking that maybe Jesus wasn’t enough to keep him afloat. He cries out, and I don’t think it’s so much out of faith as out of desperation, “Lord, save me!” Peter had already walked on the water! He knew the power of Christ was keeping him up, but he looked back and started to doubt that Jesus was enough.
Notice what Jesus does? He doesn’t preach a sermon to Peter. He doesn’t even say “O you of little faith” to him yet. Jesus IMMEDIATELY reached out his hand and took hold of him. Jesus knew the need. Jesus knew that Peter was going under, and Jesus reached out and grabbed him.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Jesus took Peter back to the rest of the disciples. And when they got back into the boat, the wind stopped.

Why didn’t Jesus stop the wind BEFORE they got into the boat? Why didn’t he stop the wind while he and Peter were walking back, or even as soon as Peter started to sink?
The truth is, we don’t know the reason. We can guess, but what it comes down to is, Jesus was able to rescue a sinking man AND a sinking ship, and he did it in exactly the way he wanted to do it.

I believe this story tells the story of where NewCreation is right now. Let me explain.
Our church is on a path. It’s a path that started 16 years ago when a group of people said “Yes” to God and left the safety of the home port to sail to a new destination. Several of you were a part of that, and as I understand it, there were several people who co-pastored the church for a while, until God placed Jerry into the position of lead pastor.
The sailing hasn’t always been smooth, but from what I know of the history of NewCreation, there were some small squalls, but no hurricanes!

Then Jerry fell ill with Parkinson’s. His health began to decline. The storm clouds were starting to loom on the horizon. Ministries that had been thriving were now clinging on to the side of the ship. The leadership team started bailing some water that had come in because of this disease that was sapping Jerry’s energy more and more. The church was still the family that it had been, and that it is today, but there were times when it struggled to stay afloat.

Then Jerry announced that he needed to retire. Again, more storm clouds, some more winds, and now the church needed to drop anchor while it searched for Jerry’s successor.

When you expend a ton of energy on one monumental task like finding someone to succeed a beloved captain, who has steered the ship that is NewCreation to its vibrancy, other things have a tendency to be put on hold. And then, when you believe you’ve found your next captain, there is still that fear that he’ll steer the ship the wrong way, or worse, crash it into the rocks and sink it.

And so we stand here today, me facing the unknown of you as a congregation; you facing the unknown of me as a pastor.

Don’t get me wrong, I have felt tremendous love and support already from so many of you, and I am blessed by how you have welcomed me and my family into the church. We have gotten to know many people, and we couldn’t be happier to be here with you.
But we’re still looking into the unknown. What I can pray is that we all see ourselves as being in the same boat, and all part of the same crew. A crew that wears different uniforms from September to the Super Bowl, but still the same crew.

Remember the question I told you I’d be asking? “What do you want NewCreation to be and do, now and in the future.”

On October 2, I hope to share with you some of the thoughts I have surrounding the answer to this question. After I’ve gotten to know more of you, and after I’m able to listen to YOUR answers.

But even before we raise anchor for the next leg of our voyage, I know I want NewCreation to be a family who looks outward from this house every day, stepping out of the boat in faith, with our eyes on Jesus, doing the good works that God has called us to through His saving grace.