Helmuth’s dying. When he was a young bloke he jumped the wall and escaped from East Berlin. He tells me he was taught at school that religion was stupid and weak, and for the rest of his life, he saw no reason to question that judgement.
That’s been a bit awkward for me from time to time as I first took up following Jesus and then a few years later left a government job to be a pastor. Despite, or maybe because of, that awkwardness, he and I have never talked that much about the Christian faith. I’ve prayed for opportunities, I’ve been trained in evangelism, but it has never quite seemed like the right moment.
Have you got friends like that? People you know and love, who don’t know Jesus, and you just struggle to find the right time and space to have that conversation? Maybe like me, you’ve agonised over finding the right moment. You’ve gone over and over the script in your head – how the conversation should go – but the moment never comes.
Well, that’s all changed for Helmuth and me now, and I want to show you how combining some 3000-year-old wisdom and some great contemporary research made all the difference. In fact, I think this may be the beginning of a new cutting edge evangelistic strategy for 21st Century Australia.
Firstly, let’s understand what’s happening in Australia at the moment. Bob Dylan got it right in 1963, that ‘the times, they are a-changin’. The times have been changing dramatically ever since, and last year’s same-sex marriage debate seems like a real watershed moment. We can expect that life will be different, and more difficult for Christians in the coming years. Despite what the noisy voices of the media may keep telling us though, there continues to be a real openness to the gospel in Australia.
The McCrindle group published some great research on Australian attitudes to religion in May last year. 59% of Australians still identify with Christianity and 22% go to church at least monthly. The numbers of people in Australia identifying with ‘no religion’ is growing, and now this group is almost the same size as the group going to church at least once a month.
As I try to understand the decline in church attendance in Australia, and think about my 30-year relationship with Helmuth, there are a couple of other stats in the McCrindle research that are very telling. Jesus is viewed positively by the great majority of Australians, and 23% of those who identify as not being Christian are open to considering Christianity further. But, we are simply not talking about Jesus. 82% of Australians have a conversation about Jesus less than once a month. That means that not even everyone going to church (22%) is having a single conversation about Jesus each month. Even more tellingly, those that do speak about Jesus, are only talking to one another. To drill down even further, 68% of Australians are not having a conversation about Jesus more than once in a year. We’re talking about all kinds of ‘religious’ and ethical topics, but not about Jesus.
Given that Australians are generally so positive about Jesus. Given that 59% of people identify with Christianity, and of the rest, one in four are open to hearing more. Given that evangelism doesn’t happen, until the ‘evangel’ (the gospel) is proclaimed, and that it is the gospel of the Lord Jesus. We simply must start speaking about Jesus with people who do not yet know or follow him!
Now, I’ve waited 30 years for God to raise up someone else to talk to my friend Helmuth, and you might be thinking to yourself, ‘yes, that’s all well and good, someone should do that’. Someone else. Again, the McCrindle research tells us that seeing a life of integrity, and hearing stories or testimonies of how their faith has changed them are the most attractive things about religion, and that hearing from celebrities and hearing philosophical debates about religion are amongst the biggest turn-offs. I am the right person to talk to my friends about Jesus, and you are the right person to talk to those you know too.
So much for the contemporary research, what about the 3000-year-old wisdom.
1 Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
3 If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
5 As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
6 Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well. (Ecclesiastes 11:1–6 NIV)
This is not a passage originally written about evangelism, but the wisdom is directly applicable. ‘Shipping your grain across the sea’, or ‘casting your bread upon the waters’, might be loosely translated for us as, ‘have a go’. Faced with all the things we don’t know, we can so easily fall into ‘analysis paralysis’. We’re so worried about what other people might think or say, or the questions they might ask us, that we end up saying nothing. We’re like the person so busy watching the wind that they never plant the seed, or so busy watching the clouds that they miss the harvest.
Evangelism is scary. It is risky. If we try talking about Jesus, maybe our friends won’t want to hang around with us as much. Maybe our workmates will ridicule us. Maybe our family could even disown us. It might happen. The thing is, that we just don’t know, and not knowing is scary. I want to know, because knowledge is power, and I want to be in control, and to weigh the risk and make my own choices. That’s OK, but me not knowing is not the disaster that I might imagine. Not if I trust that the God who knows all things is in control and is working for my good. So, my fear should not lead me to ‘analysis paralysis’, it should lead me to ‘have a go’.
In fact, not just to have a go, but to have many goes. If you don’t know ‘which will succeed, whether this or that’, the wise thing is to do is to have a go at both. To ‘invest in seven ventures, even eight’.
What does this mean for evangelism?
- Stop waiting until you think you can answer every question or weigh every risk.
- Don’t agonise and procrastinate over that one massive conversation that everything will hang off/ Just pray, and do it.
- Make and take lots of opportunities to talk about Jesus consistently, because you don’t know who God may be calling to himself through your sharing of the good news.
Can you guess what I did with Helmuth this week? It’s not rocket surgery is it? The strange thing is, I was a lot more worried about the conversation than Helmuth was. It’s always the way. He is facing eternity without hope, and I have good news. I reckon I’ve got another half dozen friends like him.
Not sure how to start a conversation about Jesus?
- Did you hear the one about the two blokes who turn up at the Temple to pray?
- Jesus was out in the midday sun one day and bumped into this woman at a well…
- Have you heard about the wedding where they ran out of wine?
- I’m such a sook, but do you know when they whipped and flogged and spat on Jesus, and hung him up to die he said, “Forgive them, Father…”
Looking for a new cutting edge evangelistic strategy for 21st Century Australia? Why would you look for a more complicated plan that this. Talk about Jesus. Talk about him so often that it becomes a habit to keep and not a hurdle to leap.