Turning Our Church Inside Out

One of the quirks that you may not yet know about me is that I am a bit of a space nut.  When I was a kid, I used to soak up everything I could about the Apollo space missions.  I remember the crew of Apollo 8  reading from Genesis 1 as they saw the earth rise above the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.  I remember aggressively lobbying my parents to let me stay up late so that I could see the broadcast of the first man walking on the moon.  I didn’t win that debate, but I remember when it happened.  I remember praying, along with the rest of the world, for the crew of Apollo 13 and not knowing if those three men would make it back to earth alive.  I remember looking at the moon one night after a successful moon landing and thinking to myself, “There are human beings up there, right now!”

Space Shuttle Launch

On February 22, 1996, I experienced the thrill of a lifetime when I watched the Space Shuttle Columbia lift off from Launch Pad 39-B at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  We were five miles away from the launch pad but NASA had set up loudspeakers and we could hear the communication between launch control and the shuttle crew.  16 seconds before the launch, 300,000 gallons of water were dumped underneath the launch pad to absorb the tremendous shock of the rockets and protect the launch pad during lift off. People began calling the last 10 seconds of the launch countdown.  Then the main engines and the solid rocket boosters ignited, the heat from those rockets hit the water, producing a huge cloud of steam which enveloped the shuttle.  Then slowly, surely, the shuttle emerges from the cloud and climbs into the sky on a plume of fire.  Even at the distance we were from the shuttle, when it climbed high enough in the sky, the sound of the solid rocket boosters hit you in the chest and vibrated through your whole body.  Higher and higher the shuttle climbed until we could see it no more.

But there are two things to be aware of anytime that you want to launch a vehicle into space.  First, there is a great barrier that every rocket must overcome and that barrier is gravity.  Ignore it and the result will be a disaster.  Second, somehow, someway, you must have more than enough thrust to overcome that barrier.  The two Solid Rocket Boosters and the three main engines of the Shuttle combine together to produce 6.78 million pounds of thrust to lift itself and its cargo from the bonds of earth’s great grasp.[1]

In three weeks, we will have Friendship Sunday here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church.  And each of you has been asked to pick up one of these cards and pray to God and ask him to bring to your mind the names of some people that you could write on this card.  Then pray for each person whose name you have written on this card.  There are seven lines so you could write seven names.  You can pray to God asking him to prepare those people’s hearts, to give them a spirit of openness to being invited, a spirit of willingness to come here to worship on that day, that God would remove any barriers that could possibly get in the way to that happening.  And then pick a time, and this week would be a good time to do this, to contact the first person on your list and invite them to Friendship Sunday. If they say “Yes,” you don’t need to ask anyone else, because you want to make sure that you will be free to look after your guest when they come.  Our hope and our prayer is that every one will bring one to Friendship Sunday on November 29.

And yet, even as we plan and prepare for Friendship Sunday, most of us probably feel a little bit uncomfortable about inviting someone to church.  The same two factors that a rocket must face are in play when it comes talking about our faith with others. There is a barrier that we must overcome.  And we need to have enough thrust to overcome it.

What I would like to do today is lower that barrier a little bit for many of us. For some of us that barrier is a fear of being rejected.  And while some people will say “no” to us, let’s give them the opportunity to say it.  Let’s not say “no” for them.  Because, according to the research of author Thom Rainer which he presents in the book The Unchurched Next Door, only 21 percent of active churchgoers invite an unchurched person to church within any given 12 month period.  And yet, as Rainer and his staff surveyed unchurched people in all 50 states and Canada, they discovered, to their surprise, that 82% of the unchurched are at least “somewhat likely” to attend church if someone invited them.  That’s more than eight out of ten.  There are some who are very antagonistic towards Christianity, but they are only 5% of the unchurched population.[2] So we don’t need to be afraid of rejection.  There is more openness to being invited than what we may think.

For some of us, that barrier is feelings of inadequacy.  We don’t think that we are cut out to be an evangelist.  We see Billy Graham on TV, or we watch someone who is very gifted at evangelism like our very own Pastor Karl, and we think, “I am not gifted at sharing my faith with other people like that, and I do not have the same personality as those people, so I guess I cannot share my faith with anyone.”  But in the Becoming a Contagious Christian small group curriculum, Mark Mittelberg, Lee Strobel and Bill Hybels write that there six different kinds of evangelism styles and each of us one primary style plus one or two secondary styles.  Those styles are the Direct Style, like Peter in Acts 2, the Intellectual Style, like Paul in Acts 17, the Testimonial or Storytelling style like the blind man in John 9, the Interpersonal Style like Matthew who threw a party for Jesus in Luke 5:29, the Invitational Style like the Samaritan woman in John 4:23, the Serving Style like Tabitha in Acts 9:36.  I would guess that Pastor Karl is the Direct Style, but that is not my Evangelism Style.  My primary style is the Testimonial Style, I like to tells stories of God at work in my life, and my secondary style is the Intellectual Style. So God can use each one of us with the personality and the giftedness and the evangelism style that he has given us to reach out to others and draw them closer to him.[3] So hopefully that barrier doesn’t seem as high to you as it did before.

The second thing that we need to keep in mind as we prepare for Evangelism Sunday is the energy, the thrust, the motivation that is going to propel us over the barriers that keep us from witnessing to others.  To get a handle on the nature of that thrust, let’s take a look at the story of Jonah.  Jonah was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 750 years before the time of Christ.  And when we hear of the story of Jonah we usually think of the part of the story where he is thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish for three days before being returned to dry ground.

But I invite you to think of the story of Jonah as a story about sharing your faith.  And in that light, it seems to be a story of how not to share your faith.  God tells Jonah to go east to Ninevah and warn the residents to turn from their evil ways and Jonah heads west towards Spain about as far west as you could go in those days.  Jonah obviously didn’t have enough thrust to get over the barrier he faced.  But what was the issue with Jonah?  Was the barrier too high?  Was he afraid of the Ninevites?  Because Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a fierce and belligerent empire that wiped out nations as it conquered them.  And it would make sense if Jonah was afraid.  Did Jonah not have enough faith?  Maybe he thought that the Ninevites had gone so far down the path of evil that no one not even God could turn them around and bring them back into a right relationship with God.  Was Jonah feeling inadequate?  Did he perhaps think that he could not do what God was asking him to do?  If you read all four chapters of the book of Jonah you will discover that Jonah’s problem was not on the barrier side of the equation.  If he had fears about the Ninevites, he is eventually able to overcome them.  Any feelings of inadequacy he may have had did not stop him from eventually doing what God called him to do.  And he knew that God had both the power and the compassion to save the Ninevites. After Jonah warns the Ninevites and they have a change of heart and mind and turn away from their sin and turn back towards God, Jonah complained to God,

Our LORD, I knew from the very beginning that you wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. That’s why I left my own country and headed for Spain. You are a kind and merciful God, and you are very patient. You always show love, and you don’t like to punish anyone, not even foreigners. (Jonah 4:2)

No the barriers were not too high for Jonah.  The problem was on the thrust side.  After being angry at God for being kind and merciful towards the Ninevites, Jonah goes and builds a shelter on some high ground east of the city to watch over it and see what happens.  Maybe God will change his mind and Jonah will get to see some fireworks.  It is hot and God causes a vine to grow and provide shade for Jonah as he sits there and waits for some fireworks to happen. But then a worm bites into the root of the vine and it dies and Jonah is hot and he gets angry once again.  And God says to Jonah,

You are concerned about a vine that you did not plant or take care of, a vine that grew up in one night and died the next. 11In that city of Nineveh there are more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don’t you think I should be concerned about that big city?(Jonah 4:10-11)

The problem with Jonah was not that the barriers were too high.  The problem was that his motivation was too low.  Jonah didn’t really care about the people of Ninevah.  What about you and me?  Do we really care about the 1.4 million unchurched people of the Lower Mainland of BC?[4] If Thom Rainer’s research applies to the people here, over 1 million of them would consider coming to church if someone asked them.  Do we really care enough to ask and give them the chance to think about it?  As I reflected on what is going on in my own heart, I have realized that I am a lot like Jonah.  I don’t really care enough about others to invite them to church.  I don’t really care enough about people to watch for and step into opportunities to share my faith with them.

One thing I do as part of my personal devotion time is keep a prayer journal.  I write down prayer requests and then I keep praying those requests until that prayer is answered.  On March 23 of this year, I wrote this prayer request, “for all the unsaved people in our community that they would trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.”  On August 11, I wrote, “Lord, give me a passion for the people outside of your church, for those who visit our church, for the people on the margins of society.” I am still praying those prayers.  But a few weeks ago, something happened during my quiet time with God.  A picture came to my mind.  It was an image of Jesus on a mountain looking out over the Lower Mainland and he was crying out, ‘Vancouver, Vancouver, how I longed to gather you together like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.”  And something is starting to happen inside of me.  Because I realize that Jesus cares about people even if people don’t care about him.  And I realized that I am one of those people.  I realized that I am Vancouver, I am Ninevah, I am Jonah.  Even though my heart is often hard and turned away from God, there is this God who loves me so much that he would actively pursue me even as I am running away from him.  And the solution for what is going on inside of me is less of me and more of him.  And my hope and my prayer is that somehow, someway, as this happens, that God would take and use me to reach out to others and invite them into life with this God who loves us so much.  And I pray that he will do that with you too.

Thom Rainer and his research team interviewed on particular woman named Marian who became a Christian a year earlier at the age of forty-one.  They asked her what church members and Christians need to hear from the unchurched.

“Tell them,” Marian begins, “that the world and Satan will give them many reasons not to be bold in telling others about Jesus.  They will even have many reasons not to invite someone to church.”  She pauses with obvious intensity in her face.  “But tell them never to accept those excuses.  The unchurched to want to be invited to church.  The lost do want to be told how to be saved.”

Marian is now holding back tears.  She continues slowly.  “But what if Paula had not cared enough to invite me to church?  What if no one had been there for me during my divorce?  What if no Christian had the guts and the conviction to tell me about Jesus?  Tell them, Thom, to stop listening to the lies of Satan and the world and to be obedient.  There are millions of people who were like me, waiting on someone like them to be unashamed of what they believe.”[5]

(Shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 8 November 2009.)

[1] “Space Shuttle,” Wikipedia; Internet; available at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle#cite_note-Columbia_Accid_Report_D.7-10; downloaded 7 November 2009.


[2] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door:  Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Zondervan:  Grand Rapids MI, 2003) 23-5.

[3] Mark Mittelberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels, Becoming a Contagious Christian:  Communicating Your Faith in a Style That Fits You (Participants Guide), Revised and Updated Edition (Zondervan:  Grand Rapids MI, 2007) 24-42.

[4] “British Columbians Least Likely to be Religious,” chart,  Statistics Canada; Internet; available at: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2006001/c-g/4097584-eng.htm; downloaded 8 November 2009.  36% indicate no religious affliation, 21% indicate a religious affiliation but does not attend religious services.  The total of these two figures (36% + 21% = 57%) was multiplied by an estimate of the population of the Lower Mainland (2,500,000) to arrive at the estimate of 1.4 million unchurched people.

[5] Rainer, 55-56.

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