Sunday, January 27, 2008

Epiphanies in Evangelism (Week #3):
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 -
“Witnessing Like the Newspapers”

Sunday, January 27, and Monday, January 28, 2008

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

After dwelling on the principles involved in the Corinthian contentions about men Paul now reminds the Corinthians of the contents of his preaching and of the way in which he preached when he first worked among them….He, indeed, brought them this blessed testimony but he made no attempt to modify it so that in such a new garb it might appeal to them….Paul’s words imply that when he came to Corinth he felt a certain temptation, when speaking to these Greeks, to employ a manner of preaching that might have made a strong appeal to them, namely fine dialectical oration or striking speculative thought; but nothing of the kind was ever uttered by him (Interpretation of I and II Corinthians, Lenski, 86,88).

That paragraph is from this commentary about 1 Corinthians. It makes all seem rather complex what with those academic words, complicated sentence constructions, and big vocabulary.

Strangely enough, this paragraph is talking about chapter 2 verse 1 where Paul says: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God,” or as another translation has it, “I did not come preaching God’s secret with fancy words or a show of human wisdom” (NCV).

In other words, the fancy words of this commentary say that Paul used plain words in his preaching.

This commentary has its use, but I’m afraid it’s also a great example of how often we make things a lot more complex than they need to be. We think that preaching about Jesus or teaching about God or sharing our faith requires us to use big words, that we’ve got to explain every complex part of Christianity.

Yet, listen to what Paul says: “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God…. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Paul didn’t use a lot of fancy talk in order to impress people into believing in Jesus; Paul trusted in the power of God, trusted that the Holy Spirit was the One who would convert people’s hearts. Which tells me that God can use any of us to share His Word, because it won’t be about our way with words. It’ll be about the Holy Spirit’s way with His power.

Which brings us to the third and last in our series of epiphanies in evangelism: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

The best way I could think of to help us understand this is by looking at what newspapers do. Newspapers don’t use incredibly complex language; they don’t write like academics or university professors. Newspapers write in such a way as to reach a lot of people at different education levels.

I asked Editor George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how the Journal Sentinel decides on the reading level of their articles, and he wrote back in an email: “We do try to write clear sentences that are easy to read and understand….The aim is to communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience. The Bible is an outstanding example of this kind of writing, [and] many of the classic works of western civilization are written with clean, simple sentences that use just the right words and cut away anything that fails to move the story forward.”

It seems to me that this should describe how we share the Gospel, too. “Clear sentences that are easy to understand.” “Communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience.” “Use just the right words to move the Gospel story forward.”

So we should go out witnessing like the newspapers! Use regular language that people understand; use the words and ideas of the people we’re trying to reach.

I mean, I guess if you’re with a bunch of intellectual academics, then you’re going to need to use intellectual, academic words. But if you’re talking about Jesus at the body shop, it’d probably be better to talk like a mechanic. If you’re hanging around the gym, sharing your faith has to come in between reps on the weight machine or while you’re out of breath on the treadmill. If you’re at a rock concert, talking about Jesus will sound different than if you’re at German Fest. Just think about it, even the way you start the conversation will be different—hello—hey—good morning, sir—how ya doin’—dude—wassup.

We’re not called to go out wowing people with our great words. We’re called to go and speak God’s Word using language people can understand—and the Holy Spirit does the wowing, the Holy Spirit is the One with the power to change hearts and create faith.

Again, today’s epiphany in evangelism is: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

Of course, this means we’ve got to start listening to how we talk—how we talk about God. What words do we use? Do we find words that other people understand? Do we talk in a way that invites people into the conversation or do we just sound like we’re from a different planet?

For instance, if you hit the scan button on your radio, as the stations automatically come up, how long does it take you to figure out if you’ve landed on a Christian program?

Probably not long. Either there’s some preacher whose talking like he’s in a church or making 15 syllables out of the name Je-ee-zee-us. Or there’s someone telling a story about God working in their life and every other word is blessed. You can quickly tell that it’s a Christian program, because they’re not talking like regular folk.

And let me tell you: if you’re not a Christian—or maybe even if you are—as soon as you hear someone on the radio talking in some strange, overly religious voice using words that you don’t know, well, you’re very unlikely to stick around to hear just why you should believe in Jesus.

If we’re going to witness like the newspapers, we’re going to have really pay attention to the way we talk, the words we use, the ideas we assume people understand, the way we change the way we talk when we starting talking about “blessed walk in the faith.”

Think about the words we use all of the time at church that are words that people outside the church don’t immediately understand: Christ, Messiah, redemption, sin, Gospel, justification, blessed, benediction, invocation, supplication, catechism, Lutheranism, Missouri Synod, pastor. This is insider vocabulary, the kind of words we can use among ourselves because we know these words—maybe—but they’re not vocabulary that people use in daily, non-church life.

It’s like my experience this week trying to get AT&T to hook up our phone at our new house—and yes, we’re completely moved into our new house and Susan and the kids will arrive this afternoon to be here for good. Anyway, the phone wasn’t all set up for our Internet, but when I called AT&T, the customer service person kept saying it was a problem of the “F order” not being completed so that the Internet services people couldn’t complete their side of the order.

I said, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what an ‘F order’ is. I just want my Internet to work.”

The customer service person was using insider vocab, using a term like F order that means nothing to someone outside of the company. She wasn’t helping me to understand the problem in a way that made sense to me; in fact, as far as I could tell, it didn’t even answer my problem. It sounded like she was talking about her problem.

When we go and tell someone that they need to believe in Jesus because our sins have separated us from God because He is holy and just and that only way to be brought back into fellowship with God is through the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross—well, it sounds like we’re talking about our problem. It doesn’t sound like their problem. The people we meet might want to know what God has to do them, but if we use insider vocab, it is very hard for people to see what any of it has to do with their questions about God.

Instead, we need to witness like the newspapers. “Clear sentences that are easy to understand.” “Communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience.” “Use just the right words to move the Gospel story forward.”

And that’s today’s epiphany in evangelism: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

That’s what I’ve been trying to model with the order of service we’ve been using these three weeks during this series. I’ve tried to step back and think about what we’re really trying to say during worship. I tried to write the invocation, opening sentences, confession, and absolution in such a way that either replaced the insider vocab or explains it.

What is the invocation? It’s the part of the service that reminds us that we have God’s Name through baptism. What is confession? It’s admitting that God should kick us out of the family. What is absolution? It’s God saying He wants to keep us in the family, so He forgives us because of what Jesus did.

Perhaps you like the more formal order of service, and in that case, I didn’t write this order of service in the way you speak or think. But in case you ever have felt like worship goes by and you didn’t even really know what we were saying, well, then an order of service like this is meant to help you.

More than that, though, it’s an exercise in getting us to slow down and think about what we’re saying. It’s about seeing if we can use regular words to talk about this wonderful Gospel that we know. It’s about learning how to say what we mean, explain what we know about Jesus as we meet people and tell them about our faith—instead of just repeating a bunch of phrases that we’re only sort of sure what they mean.

There’s a place for poetry, academic articles, and complex vocabulary. Those may even be the most important ways to communicate the Gospel for some people. But when you’re at the grocery store, when you’re talking to a friend while driving in the car, or when your 10 year old child asks about God, you need a different kind of language. It’s then that you have to rely on God’s Spirit to have the power, instead of thinking you have to have some incredible way with words. It’s then that you can’t be caught up in thinking about choosing all of the right words, but instead trust that God will use the conversation for good even as you are just being yourself.

Be yourself and say: “When Jesus died on the cross, it was like He cracked one out of the park, a homerun to give a World Series victory to every Triple-A farm club.”

Be yourself and say: “Dude, you ain’t as good as you think you are. No one’s good. You need Jesus to make up for your pitiful self.”

Be yourself and say: “As far as I can see, Jesus balanced your budget which was extremely in the red. He brought you into the black with His Black Friday.”

Be yourself and say: “I mean I’m telling you that Oprah does a lot of good things, but that’s a little bit compared to the great, big love of Jesus.”

Be yourself and say: “Man, I’m as rotten and dirty as an oil filter after 200,000 miles. And then, just like that, Jesus gives me a clean filter. Cleans me all up and sends me down the highway for eternity.”

Be yourself and say: “I don’t really know how to explain it all. I just know that God made me and wants me to be with Him forever.

Be yourself. God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.