”Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:29-31 NRSV
The course was called “Introduction to Theological Education” and the above Scripture is a portion of a larger text which served as our “paradigm passage” for the sixteen weeks. The word “paradigm” refers to a pattern or model for doing something, and, in the case of our class, the verses functioned as an example for performing ministry (specifically evangelism). The setting involves a deserted road, a eunuch on his way home from Jerusalem, and Philip who was one of the early “deacons” appointed in Acts 6. A man who was clearly in tune with the Spirit of God, Philip obeyed the Lord’s leading to approach this God-fearing foreigner and to make himself available to address the man’s inquiry. His approach was what we might consider “personal.” That is, he did not remain at a distance or hand the eunuch some literature for further reading. Philip engaged the man in conversation, discovered that with which he struggled, and allowed that struggle to become the starting point for sharing Christ.
For many people, the thought of sharing Christ with someone else can seem quite intimidating. A few years ago, I had a gentleman ask me just how to go about witnessing, what to say, which Scriptures to use, etc. I knew he was looking for an outline which he could follow step by step. My response was rather simple, “Tell what you know.” I could tell based upon his silence and body language that he was hoping for a little more. I followed up my initial response by having him consider who Jesus was to him and why or how that had been of importance to his life. I also emphasized the place of getting to know a person and establishing credibility/trust with him or her even before broaching the subject of faith. I believe this is of great importance even though it requires time for the establishment of a relationship. Of course, this runs counter to our conventional ways of thinking about evangelism. In the past, sharing one’s faith was more of a “quick sell.” That is, ask a particular question, give a generic follow-up script, pray, and leave. This “one size fits all” approach may have been effective for a time, but we find that today people are much more skeptical and hesitant to buy into something which seems questionable.
I broach the subject of evangelism this month because it is the first point of our church’s mission: “To reach as many people as possible for Christ.” While this seems like a logical pursuit for any church of any generation, it is perhaps of even greater importance today. However, we must realize just what we are saying and meaning when we emphasize “reaching” and “people.” A few days ago, our daughter was requesting something from one of the cabinets in our kitchen. With her being nine and “growing like a weed,” I presumed she could reach that item without any assistance. She stood on her toes and stretched out her arms as far as they would go, but ended up needing my assistance. In reaching for that item, she was exerting effort so as to attain what she desired. She had to take her hands to the object. The object did not hop down from the cabinet or appear when she thought about wanting it. That is how it is with our Christian witness. We must be willing to carry it to where the people are.
Who are these “people” we wish to reach? Anyone and everyone. The eunuch in the Acts text was an outsider by the standards of first-century Judaism. He had not been born Jewish and even an affinity for the beliefs and practices of Judaism would have been insufficient to gain full-acceptance. The story of the eunuch is a reminder that people are different. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, and preferences, but each have the common need for knowing God’s love and grace. Often, our idea of reaching “people” is limited to those who are most like us. We want people who may already have an idea about church attire, behavior, and protocol. We seek those who have something to bring to the table with spiritual gifts, influence, or financial means. When you think about it, those descriptors sound like people who are already Christian. If we are not careful, that is who we desire and pursue for entry into the church. Much of the evangelism we see in the world today is not actually evangelism. It is proselyting or playing a game of “musical churches.” We shift membership around without actually growing the Kingdom of God.
In his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, author George Hunter shares the story of Saint Patrick who is considered the patron saint of Ireland. When Patrick was about sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates from his home in Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland where he remained for six years. Patrick escaped from his captors and returned home where he entered the ministry. Soon thereafter, Patrick returned to Ireland where he began to share Christ with a people who were considered “barbaric” and beyond the reach of the Gospel. His approach was one of establishing relationships with the people, getting to know their culture and pagan practices, and from there introducing them to Jesus. Key to his effectiveness was Patrick’s willingness to go where no others wished to go and engaging people who were quite unlike himself. This demanded courage and obedience to a calling without restrictions. It is this same Patrick whose death we remember each year on March 17 with shamrocks, green clothing, and rainbow candy. It is my hope we will remember more than the fun of Saint Patrick’s Day in a few weeks and that, in conjunction with the story of Philip found in Acts, we might be challenged to reach others (barbarians and eunuchs too) with the good news!
Together in Christian Witness,
The Reverend Kelley Smart