The Discipline of Evangelism

One of the most challenging chapters in Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is the chapter “Evangelism…For The Purpose of Godliness.” The idea of evangelism has been thrust into the forefront of my mind for two reasons: 1) I am taking a class called Evangelism and Discipleship, and 2) because I want to plant a church from evangelism.

I was twenty-three years old before I heard of anyone actually setting aside time in their week to go evangelize. I knew Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses went purposefully, but I had never heard of a faithful Christian person plan to go evangelize. For some of you, planning to go evangelize just does not compute. It did not compute for me either until I began to be influenced in another way. See, evangelism was something the whole church did through events or from living a Christian lifestyle, not personally sharing the good news of Jesus. Evangelism was always guilt driven too. “You needed to be doing it, and you were a bad Christian if you were not evangelizing” (whatever that meant). Evangelism in some cases was simply inviting someone to church. Evangelism, for me, was an ethereal idea that happened unintentionally. I have since changed my perspective.

Evangelism is not some ethereal idea. Evangelism is the communicating of the gospel to another. I explain the connecting between evangelism and discipleship here. As someone who loves the church, we need to rediscover the art of verbal proclamation of the gospel Monday through Saturday.

For some, even reading about evangelism causes an eye-dropping, foot-shuffling anxiety, and the response to click off this post and stop reading. We would rather the idea of personally sharing the good news be left forgotten. However, as Donald Whitney articulates, evangelism is actually needed for our growth in godliness. He says, “I’m convinced that the main reason many of us don’t witness for Christ in ways that would be effective and relatively fear-free is simply because we don’t discipline ourselves to do it.”

We do not discipline ourselves to do it because the only image we have is the guy on the street corner shouting at people about how they are going to hell. At the end of the day, we have not consistently seen very many methods of evangelism. For many years, my excuse was that I had not seen someone effectively do it. I have heard the excuse I do not know enough, or I am not sure what to say. We let our lack of “learning” stop us from doing. Evangelism is always an assignment of faith. The believer is seldom wholly prepared for every tough question or every single encounter.

What’s fascinating is that in Mark 5:1-20 Jesus provides a great blueprint for evangelism.  Jesus takes his disciples to the unclean region across the Sea of Galilee where they encounter a demon possessed man. The disciples most likely knew exactly where they were headed. The demon possessed man could have been heard all across the lake in his chains. Jesus casts out the demon upon reaching the other side and then begins getting back into the boat.

18 As he [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged him earnestly that he might remain with him. 19 Jesus did not let him but told him, “Go home to your own people, and report to them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So he went out and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and they were all amazed.

Simple. No training. No extra time with Jesus. Just go tell others what the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you. Then, the man went and did.

All he knew was the Jesus he encountered and how it transformed his life. Two questions:

  1. How has the Jesus of the Bible impacted your life?
  2. Can you share that story?

If you can share the how Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection has intersected and impacted your life then you can “evangelize.” Recently, I have been challenged the only way to learn is by doing; in conjunction, the only way to do is through discipline. When speaking about discipline people react in funny ways as well. I know I do. Most discipline is drudgery because it has no direction. When the direction is to become more like Christ (Rom 8:29), we cannot honestly pursue Christ-likeness without the discipline of evangelism. Further, when we pursue Christ-likeness it will take effort but ultimately cultivate delight in the Lord.

Disciplined faith is a faith that is likely to survive and lead to faith in others. – Alister E. McGrath

In order for Christianity to reach movement stage (my personal vision for church planting in the Pacific Northwest), pastors have to lead out in personal evangelism and subsequently equipping others for evangelism. Jeff Christopherson says this thought well.

“When churches are planted for evangelism, they often find themselves culturally mismatches and fail to gain an indigenous foothold. When churches are started from evangelism, they seem to instinctively know how to move forward, with great credibility, in a sea of networks and relationships.”

If you would like to see a movement in your city or revival in your church then take up the task of personal evangelism. Will you take a step to discipline yourself to evangelize?

Necessity of Margin

How much margin do you have in your life?

I am talking about in all areas of your life. Finances. Total Schedule. Work. Family Time. I am convinced one reason churches are in decline, families are crumbling, anxiety and depression are on the rise, is the lack of margin in life. We need more margin. When our lives are frantic and frenzied, we are more prone to anxiety, resentment, impatience, and irritability. We are less likely to give generously with our time and money. Kevin Deyoung notes in his work Crazy Busy, “When we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk. The challenge is not merely to make a few bad habits go away. The challenge is to not let our spiritual lives slip away.”

There is actually nothing uniquely Christian about the idea itself. However, there is something very un-Christian about ignoring it. “Margin,” Richard Swenson says, “is the space between our load and our limits.” Planning for margin means planning for the unplannable. It means we understand what’s possible for us as finite creatures and then we schedule for less than that.

Now, creating margin in your life is not easy. Creating margin takes discipline and time (that apparently none of us have). Because creating margin is not convenient or valued, we overextend ourselves. I say “we” because I do it too. Here’s what made me aware of the lack of margin in our lives.

I had a conversation with a pastor about the best ways to communicate with the congregation. He suggested video because no one takes time to actually read anything anymore. I am amazed by this phenomenon too. We all claim we do not have the time to read, yet reading is one of the best ways to stimulate imagination and provide stress relief. I want to address the time issue for a second. In reality, we do have time to read. For example, should you choose to read your Bible, here is where you might find the time according to Donald Whitney:

Perhaps one of the main reasons Christians never read through the entire Bible is discouragement. Many people have never read a thousand-page book before and get discouraged at the sheer length of the Bible. Do you realize that recorded readings of the Bible have proven that you can read through the entire Book in seventy-one hours? That’s less time than the average American spends in front of the television every month. In other words, if most people would exchange their TV time for Scripture reading, they’d finish reading the entire Bible in four weeks or less. If that sounds unworkable, consider this: In no more than fifteen minutes a day you can read through the Bible in less than a year’s time. Only five minutes a day takes you through the Bible in less than three years. And yet the majority of Christians never read God’s Word all the way through in a lifetime of decades. So we’re back to the idea that it’s primarily a matter of discipline and motivation. – Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

That’s just TV. Throw in the 5-10 minutes of scrolling you do 5-6 times a day on your smartphone, you potentially have some time. Now, if you are like me, some of that scrolling comes while you are “on the go.” So, I will stick to the blocked aspects of your calendar. Give yourself some grace and create some margin.

The secular world is noticing the lingering lack of margin too. The other encounter, which made me aware of how pervasive our lack of margin is, came through the Global Leadership Summitt 2017 where Juliet Funt devoted a whole talk to the pause. She has a whole business devoted to people creating small windows of margin in their schedule, which actually helps them be more productive and live a more fulfilled life. Juliet’s company is called Whitespace at Work and provided tons of research for the benefits of margin.

Their website puts it this way: ” Work has become relentless. Most professional teams feel they could be ‘on’ 24 hours a day and never complete their task lists. They never disconnect. They’re frequently exhausted. Adding to the pain, employees often are held hostage to their overwhelming inboxes, pointless meetings, and a thousand forms of wasted effort.”

The whole company is devoted to making you put margin in your schedule at work, even if it is five minutes in between meetings to mentally refresh. It does not stop there. Juliet realizes the pause needs to happen at home as well. The frantic movement from event to event is cultivating poor habits in our kids.

You may be someone who agrees that the need for margin is important but never seems to get there. Why? Two reasons. Because we are unwilling to find the time and do the discipline of doing it ourselves. We do not want to make hard choices for fear of others. Frankly, if someone else does it for us, we can always opt out or blame them. If we make the choice to put margin into our schedules, then we have to own that choice. Meaning, we have to prioritize. The fear of missing out or fear of another’s opinion of our choices paralyze us into nothingness.

Second, we do not want to face the sobering reality of how much time we waste each day. To avoid the guilt we simply chalk everything up to the ethereal, “I’m just busy.” When we waste time we are not being good stewards of the time God has given us. We may even know this, but do not want to repent of our sinful behavior. To have margin is not waste. God gave us a Sabbath because He knows we need to refresh and refocus. A Sabbath is an example of margin.

Let me ask you: If you pulled out your calendar, how much white space do you see? Is there time to pause, read, think, dream a little? Is there time to just be together as a family?

Some of you reading that question immediately throw up objections. It’s not possible! It’s unproductive! Some of you may even go, tons! You do not use your calendar at all, yet you are so busy.

Because this is not natural. You may actually have to schedule margin by putting time blocks on your calendar called margin. A lack of margin may cause you to miss opportunities to give, to receive blessings, to refresh. Margin does not only help us be more productive and have a more fulfilling day. Margin allows us to meditate and refocus on God. We do not have to prove ourselves to Him. We do not have to fear others. We do not have to control every situation.

Margin enables us to rest in God’s goodness, His glory, and His grace.

D. L. Moody put it, “A man can no more take in a supply of grace for the future than he can eat enough for the next six months, or take sufficient air into his lungs at one time to sustain life for a week. We must draw upon God’s boundless store of grace from day to day as we need it.”

How do we do it? Sit down. Pray. Make a choice. Create margin.

Nehemiah 7-8: Steps to Spiritual Renewal

We are working through the book of Nehemiah this summer in our church about following God through a broken mess. This is a written variation of the sermon I preached on Chapters 7-8.

When we arrive in Chapter 7 of Nehemiah, we are at a turning point, a tipping point if you will. The wall has been completed in a record 52 days. The Israelites have overcome distractions and disagreements. Nehemiah and the people of God have overcome through providence and determination. In a sense, they have arrived. They have completed what they set out to do. Yet, as we look at the pages in our bibles there are seven more chapters.

These next few chapters are crucial. Because as I look at mankind two things happen when we reach this point, this sense of completion or arrival: 1) We coast, or 2) We keep grinding as if this is one step in a larger plan. In Nehemiah, the physical broken mess of the walls have been restored, but the spiritual broken mess of the people has barely been touched. Only through the perseverance of rebuilding the walls were the people of God ready to take steps of spiritual renewal.

I am currently in graduate school working on my Master’s Degree. In one of my recent classes I had a professor say something that has stuck with me. “You have to be broken, truly broken, before you will know what true grace is.” I believe that. I see that in my own life.

Some of you in this room resonate with that quote. You have been broken. And out of that brokenness you had no where else to turn, but to God and you felt real grace for the first time. Some of you have never felt that before and have no idea what feeling of brokenness I am talking about. My hope today is that you come face-to-face with the brokenness.

There is this tension of pride from success with the brokenness, as we arrive in Chapter 7 of Nehemiah’s narrative. Nehemiah being the man of prayer and determination looks at the people of God, the walls of Jerusalem, his plan, and then to God and says, “Okay, what’s next?”

We pick up the narrative in verse 4 (italics my comments).

“The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then God put in into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy (basically, take a census). And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first (reference to the return of the first wave of exiles) and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had just carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah…” (vv. 4-7a ESV).

He then precedes to read off the names and numbers of people who were are recorded. My hope is that you recognize a few of those initial names. Mordecai is Ester’s cousin and we read about him in the book of Ester. Nehemiah, who this book is named after. Zerubbabel who led the first group back from exile. Sometimes we wonder why all these  numbers and names are important. But, these names and numbers here in Chapter 7 begin the first step in spiritual renewal for the Israelites. They had to identify who is really Jewish. They had to know who was really in the family of God. Going through these names I would encourage you to mark these sections out in your bible. This will help make the names and numbers less daunting when you read through them.

Verses Indentification
7:7b-25 Family Lineage
7:26-38 Town or area
7:39-42 Priests
7:43-45 Levites, singers, gatekeepers
7:46-56 Temple servants
7:57-60 Solomon’s Servants (special roles)
7:61-65 Could not prove Israelite decent
7:66-72 Gifts given

Nehemiah goes through all the names of the people and recorded their numbers. Go back to something I wrote earlier. They needed to know who is part of the family and who is not. Because in order to make Israel a holy nation again, they had to begin with separation from non-covenantal people to begin the spiritual and cultural renewal process.

The dynamic of Israel is so unique. It is unlike any other nation or country, ever in the history of the world. Their culture, their practices, and customs are religious because nationality and spirituality are tied together under the Covenant of Abraham and Law of Moses. If we look back at verse 5, God initiates this process of renewal. He put it on Nehemiah’s heart.

The big picture of Nehemiah is following God through a broken mess, so that you experience restoration, healing, renewal, and sanctification for his glory. This was the aim. It started way before we get to this chapter, but this is where this message first becomes crystal clear in Nehemiah. At the heart of this renewal for Israel, and in particular their capitol city of Jerusalem, is the spiritual and religious lifeblood that comes from a God who is all about reconciliation and sanctification of His people for His glory. Chapter 7:5-72 explains what is happening in the background of chapters 8, 9, and 10. The theme of knowing who’s in and who’s out returns in chapter 11.

If you were trying to follow that part of the narrative and are taking notes, the first step to getting on the path to spiritual renewal is know what makes your family part of God’s family. In simplified words, Step 1 is define the distinction.

A modern day picture, for some families they have specific characteristics that set them apart. For example, you may know that little Timmy got his ears from your side of the family because everyone on your side of the family has ears that stick out. In Harry Potter, everyone knows Ron is a Weasley because of his red hair and his hand-me-down stuff.

Now, we live under the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus. What separates the church our family from other organizations? What separates followers of Jesus from good moral people?

As followers of Jesus in God’s family we must be able to define what distinguishes our beliefs, values, customs, choices, actions from other people in this world, if we want a spiritual renewal in our families, churches, and our communities. My aunt says it best, “we are forgiven!” The fact that we are a forgiven people is what separates followers of Jesus and the church at its core from the world. We have experienced love so deep it forgives and gives, which is something we do not deserve. We got grace. This mark of grace becomes visible in Chapter 8 of Nehemiah.

Chapter 8 starts out like this:

“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses (which would be the first 5 books of our bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and we find Lev. & Num. irrelevant) that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both man and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month (which would be around the start of October). And he read from it facing the square before the water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand (so 6 on his right and 7 on his left). And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blesses the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and they worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub,, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book from the Law of God clearly, and they gave sense, so that the people clearly understood the reading” (vv. 1-8 ESV).

This is an incredible picture of teaching the word of God. The Israelites have rebuilt the wall. They went back to their towns and villages. Then they came back together to hear from God, not as individuals, but as one man, for a unified purpose. They wanted to hear from God. They listened intently. They were attentive for six hours—from early morning to midday. There was a hunger for God’s Word. He had brought them out of exile. He had helped them begin restoring the city. They were seeing physical signs of God’s deliverance. They were coming to a realization that God does what he says he is going to do, but they now had to learn more about what he said.

The second step to spiritual renewal, if you are taking notes, is listen to the Word read and taught. The Word brings worship. Ezra opened the Law and the people stood because this was not only tradition, but also a physical act of submission to God. Then Ezra began to read: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord in one.” The reading would have started with this call to worship and then followed with the text that was being read. For example, Deuteronomy 16:13-14,

“You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, and your son and your daughter, your male servant, and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.” 

The people said, “Yes! Yes!” They were listening to the word. They worshiped God, which means they danced, raised hands, clapped, and bowed down. We usually equate a response like this to music, a concert, or a sporting event. The Israelite did this in response to preaching. Ezra read. Ezra preached and the people cheered. As it says in verse 8, the Levites and priests then explained the Word to the people, why did that passage matter. They explained the meaning behind it, how it fit into the history of Israel, how to apply what was being read. Ezra read the words and rituals, that the Old Testament is full of, but it did not just stop with that. They explained what the rituals and words meant. They made the Law relevant in new and unexpected ways. The application to the Law, not just the knowledge of what it says. The Israelites, in this scene cheered, “We want more!”

This desire came because they listened to the Word. This next step, is implied yet also shown later, they responded to the Word. We cannot get to an accurate step 3 unless, we first listen to the Word read and taught. Step 3 is respond. In order for spiritual renewal to happen we must respond. For the Israelites, after hearing the Law it caused them to mourn. They worshiped and they mourned. Now, Nehemiah sees this response and hears their response, and this is what it says in verse nine:

“And Nehemiah, who was governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat (or eat the best meat) and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord in your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quite, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (vv. 9-12 ESV).

It is a preachers worst nightmare. The people hear the Law and its explained in new ways, but they just do not get it. Why did they not get it? The Law was working the way it supposed to work. The Law points out their sin and wickedness, but the story is not about them. It is about God. Nehemiah absolutely wants them to respond. God’s Word calls us to respond. However, the Israelites go sometimes where we go—straight to the guilt and shame. Guilt is a powerful emotion and force. However, grief and mourning from guilt leaves us empty and unsatisfied. Our response to God’s Word will be incorrect if the information we hear is not properly understood within the greater narrative. Because Nehemiah and Ezra are in the process of restoring a culture, a mindset, and a religious way of life, they needed to take the time to help the Israelites respond the way the Word elicited. They want the Israelites to experience something that is even more powerful and drives deeper into the heart than guilt or shame. That force is one of love and grace. The joy of the Lord is our strength because he has shown us grace. The joy of the Lord is our strength! The Israelites had disobeyed. They has tossed the book of the Law out the window, which had gotten them sent into exile. Yet, God heard them and brought them out of exile. He showed them grace and then they said we want more. Nehemiah wants them to respond to the grace they have been shown not with mourning but with joy. He wants them to throw a party and share it with everyone. Eat the best meat. Drink the best drinks and not only keep it for yourselves, but share it with everyone. Then the lightbulb came on after more explanation. It says, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (v. 12). They heard the Word, they responded to the Word, and the understood the word.

This sounds amazing—the people of God desiring God, hearing God, responding to God and then sharing that with everyone with joy! Taking that to our context today, under the New Covenant, I want to be part of a church like that. I think we all want a church like that—a church filled with life, love, joy, and unity around the one thing we cannot truly experience anywhere else, grace.A God glorifying family that absolutely celebrates and is joyful. A church that responds the way the Word of God instructs. That would look and feel incredible! That church would be a place where people want to be. Do the Israelites catch this vision of what spiritual renewal looks like?

The chapter goes on and in verse 13 we pick up the next day.

“On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the word of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’ So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was great rejoicing. And day by day from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule” (vv. 13-18 ESV).

The last two steps get merged together. They get squishy. In order to take steps toward spiritual renewal, we must define what distinguishes us, listen to the Word read and taught, respond to the Word, allow for correction and then repeat. I want to return to the text just read, the Israelites responded and allowed their leaders to shepherd them in their response, just as Nehemiah did when they mourned. Once they responded and were corrected, they were then truly able to understand. We will never truly understand until we experience. It is just knowledge that we think we understand, until it is put into practice. The Israelites returned to the Word because they wanted to go through the process again. If we only know, but never do, it will not drive us back to the Word because we have no experience that tells us otherwise. The leaders were there not to condemn, but correct. The people had to trust that Nehemiah and the Levites knew what they were talking about.

The timing of this is perfect. The Israelites are learning about the feast of Booths, or Tabernacles, which is found in Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus, and Exodus. They heard it written in the Law of this feast. They then preceded to learn about why that feast was important, remember, all the section leaders, the Levites, were giving understanding. This feast is to remind them, to be a physical symbol, about the wandering in the wilderness, how God brought them out of Egypt, how they disobeyed, yet he was still with them. He still dwelt in the tabernacle, while they dwelt in booths. The tabernacle was the tent where God dwelt before the Temple in Jerusalem was built. If you look back in the text, they had not celebrated this feast properly since Joshua, they guy who succeeded Moses as leader. It had been awhile. Nevertheless, the Israelites were determined to follow the book of the Law. They had just come out of their own enslavement, their own exile. God had provided for them even though they had not kept his laws, just as he has for the Israelites when they we enslaved in Egypt. “You have to be broken, truly broken, before you will know what true grace is.” The Israelites experienced grace. They were experiencing joy in keeping rituals, and customs because they had experienced brokenness.

My guess is you need spiritual renewal somewhere in your life. In fact we all do. Today, if we were to draw connections to this text. We distinguished ourselves by gathering as a family this weekend, we heard the word, my hope, by the grace of God, that we understood the word, and that we will now go and respond to the word.

The appropriate response is this: if you have experienced Jesus’ grace, then share it joyfully and stop mourning about the suffering of following Jesus. If you have never accepted him, say yes to him, and if you need more understanding, then respond by asking. The worst thing you can do today is not do anything.

That is why we continually need to repeat, do it again, become like-new or made new again. We need reminders. When we read God’s Word when we respond to God’s Word, Old or New Testament, it sends us not simply to an action or to a moral code, but a person. His name is Jesus. He is the perfect form of grace. The Israelites needed reminded of God’s grace because God is a keeper of his promises. The biggest promise of all was that he was going to send someone, who would restore all things, redeem all things, heal all things. God initiated this process of spiritual renewal, just like He did with Nehemiah and the Israelites, by sending Himself from heaven to earth. Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty for your sins and rose from the dead, so that you can experience forgiveness and grace that lasts into eternity. That is something we do not deserve.