The Long Game

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

In 2000 while I was attending the University of Evansville, evangelist Luis Palau came to town.  Palau began ministry as a Spanish translator for Billy Graham before starting a similar ministry that was modeled after Graham’s.   In the lead up to the event, there was a call for volunteers who would be able to pray with and even lead the people who responded to the message into saying the “sinner’s prayer” and accepting Jesus.   I signed up to do this, I went to the training, and I was assigned the last day of the three day event.   I went and when the call was made, went down to the floor ready to do my duty.   I did not lead anyone in filling out a decision card that day.  I did pray with someone that night: a young man who was the same age I was.  He did not come down to get saved though.   This was two decades ago, so I do not remember the exact prayer request he had, but I remember it being kind of vague.  He had mentioned he had come down to the floor the two nights before, so I kind of got the impression he just wanted to be included, and be part of something.   I did leave that night wondering just how many other people who were responding to the invitation were doing so because they wanted to be included in what was happening.

That next summer in 2001, I attended a Billy Graham crusade in Louisville.   This was part of the last tour of evangelistic crusades that Billy Graham had embarked in, and I wanted a chance to hear the best known American preacher in person.  I have a feeling that style of ministry would work today, and I think the answer is no.   Maybe I am just being cynical but I do not see it having the same draw it used to.  Part of the draw of these stadium events is that it is was a free spectacle, but in our modern era I think more people would prefer to stay home and stream something off of Netflix.  I have to wonder though if big stadium events were ever the best method for sharing the gospel.   Studies of found that of the people who come forward during those events only 6% are any different in their beliefs or attitudes one year later.  This is not to take anything away from Billy Graham.  He was using the method of sharing the gospel that was pushed at his time, and 6% of the millions of people who came forward at his events during his lifetime is still a huge impact for the kingdom of God.   However, reducing being a disciple down to coming forward and saying a single prayer is not the most effective way for someone to commit to a lifelong discipleship of following Jesus.   It is our mission of every church to make disciples of all the nations as Jesus commissioned us to do.  In this morning’s scripture Paul points us to the best way to do this.

This morning’s scripture comes from 1 Thessalonians.  This is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, which is located on the coast in Northern Greece.  The church in Thessalonica is one that Paul founded on one of his missionary journeys and it is recorded in Acts 17:1-9.   The book of Acts does not specify exactly how long Paul stayed in the city.  In the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul mentions he was there long enough that he could claim to live among the people.   However, from Acts we know that Paul’s time in Thessalonica was shorter than he would have liked because some agitators who opposed him started a riot in an attempt to run him out of town.    Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to follow up with the church and to address some questions that had arisen after he left.  In this morning’s scripture, Paul reminds the Thessalonians just how he conducted his ministry while he was with them.  This morning’s scripture gives us an inside look to the way that Paul went about fulfilling the mission of making disciples.  Paul’s strategy of evangelism is best summed up in verse eight of this morning’s scripture: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”  I am confident that when it comes to making disciples, when it comes to sharing the good news, Paul’s way is still the best way.

Thinking about Paul’s way of engaging in sharing the gospel, really shows to me how inadequate some of the modern ways evangelism has been done.   When it comes to introducing people to Jesus “sharing our lives” is a lot different than an altar call and sinner’s prayer.  On one hand, I can see why pressuring people to say a specific prayer became a popular way of sharing the gospel.   It feels a bit like a shortcut, a life hack.  Reducing it all down to a single decision seems to be very a streamlined approach to the whole process.  This method is also popular because it requires a lot less investment from us.   However, when it comes to his model no one did it better than the big stadium events of a generation ago, and remember research shows this method is only 6% effective.   I think there are a couple of reasons why this form of evangelism is not the best ways to make disciples.

In this morning’s scripture Paul wrote, “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motive, nor are we trying to trick you.”   While I do not think a lot of modern evangelistic efforts come from impure motives, they often do feel a bit like a trick.  I have seen this when the invitation to discipleship gets reduced to little more than a high pressured sales pitch for eternal fire insurance.   I have seen this when theatrics are used to create an emotionally charged environment before an invitation is made.   Reducing following Jesus down to accepting Jesus in your heart and saying a single prayer can feel a bit like a trick, like a bait and switch.   It makes it seem that salvation is a single life changing decision, but it is so much more than that.   That initial decision to say yes to God’s yes and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior is just the first of many decisions.  Discipleship is not a onetime decision to follow Christ, it is a lifetime of daily decisions.  Being a Christian is about more than a single glorious moment of getting saved.  It is, as Eugene Petersen puts it, a long obedience in the same direction.

Nowhere in scripture do we find Paul or any of the apostles making a high pressure presentation of the gospel and then asking people to accept Jesus and confirm that by repeating a prayer.  Instead what we find are scripture’s like this morning.   We find the method Paul used to effectively spread the gospel and make disciples of Jesus is by loving people and sharing life together.  At its core Christianity is all about relationship.  It is based in our relationship with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and it is through Jesus we are reconciled to be in right relationship with God the Father.  Given that, it makes sense that the most effective way to introduce people to the faith is through relationship, through sharing our lives with them.   One of the problems with making sharing the faith all about a single decision, is puts all of the emphasis on the decision.   It becomes all about the number of souls won, not about the actual people who hopefully have started a life changing relationship with Jesus.  Our emphasis should not be about posting higher numbers than a church down the road, our emphasis should be about sharing life with others, about loving them because they are worth loving.  Loving our neighbors, not as projects but as people who we have genuine compassion for, is how disciples are made.   This is what Paul did to create new churches, and it is still the single most effective way to introduce people to Jesus in a way that completely changes their life.

There is a small caveat to this though.  We absolutely should invest in the lives of people who do not yet know Jesus, we should share our lives with them, and we should have great care for them.  However, we still need to share the gospel with them.   A lot of us do a good job at investing in people, caring for people, and serving them out of love.  Where we stumble, where I have stumbled, is going to the next step and sharing with them the good news of Jesus Christ.  One of the single biggest regrets of my life relates to this.   For most of the summers in between my years at college I worked at Pizza Hut in the kitchen making pizzas.    The store manager’s name was Greg.    He was a fair manager and I got along with him well.  I worked a lot those summers, and I would often close.  On more than one occasion it ended up that Greg and I would be the only ones left in the store, and we often had good conversations.  I learned that he was not a believer, but that had a lot to do with some terrible life experiences with specific people.   I got the strong impression that he was open to the possibility of exploring faith.  I naturally began to pray for him regularly, but I also felt nudging in the depth of my soul that we needed to have a conversation about faith.  Towards the end of the summer, there was a night where I closed.   It was late and the two of us were the only ones left in the store.  I could feel the urging of the Holy Spirit, I knew in my heart and soul that this was it.  This was the moment, that if I could share with him how following Jesus had changed my life, I could share the assurance I knew, and the unquenchable hope I felt.  I knew that this would be my chance to share the gospel. But I failed.  I convinced myself not to do it for a whole bunch of not very good reasons.  Just a couple of weeks later I left to go back to college.  Two months later I ran into someone who worked as a delivery driver and attended the same university.  He told me the news.  Greg had slipped in the bathroom, hit his head hard on a sink, and because he lived alone no one knew to get help.  He died from the injury.   I had the opportunity to share the hope of eternal life with this man, and I blew it.   I believe with all my heart that because of Jesus all of my sins are forgiven, but if I am being honest even now-nineteen years later, the sin of my silence still hurts when I think about it.

Following Paul’s example we should care, love, and share life with other people.   However, we have to be cautious that we are silent when we should speak up.   If people know we genuinely care for them and that we just do not see them as another target to collect and count as tally mark in the souls won column, then we will earn the right to share the story of Jesus with them.  If we do not do that though, if we stay silent because we do not wish to offend or make it awkward, then we truly have not loved them.  We would have kept the good news of Jesus and God’s love to ourselves, and there is nothing loving about that.   If, as people of faith, we are going to take the time to invest and love others as we should, then the single most loving act we can do is share with them the love of God.

Every single person who claims to be a Christian, who claims to be saved, is to be a disciple of Jesus who makes disciples.  This morning’s scripture gives us a glimpse of how Paul did that.  Paul’s discipleship making efforts created entire new churches and it laid the groundwork that allowed the faith to spread and thrive.  Fortunately, Paul’s model is simple to do and easy to replicate.  We love people, we care for them, we share our life with them, and we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them. This is not a single decision that is easy to count, it is a much longer and more involved process.  But may we be willing to invest in that long game.  May we love others, share life with them, and share the gospel with them.   If we want to be serious about fulfilling our mission to make disciples and living into our visions of sharing God’s love to change lives, then this the most effective way we can do this.  The question each of us have to ask ourselves, is will we do it?  Will you love others and will you share God’s love with them?

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