During my time of reflection in January, I shared what may have been a shocking statement. No not a statement of my own creativity, but rather one made some years ago by author Rick Warren from his well-known work The Purpose Drive Life: “It’s not about you.” I know that may seem hard to believe, but it is true in spite of what today’s culture might try to tell us. Our reason for existing, the basis of our being, is not for our own personal success, comfort, or praise. This life has been graced to us in order that we might live out our days glorifying God and making his presence known within our world. Unfortunately, in the busyness of our times, we as the Church can become sidetracked and take for granted the commission which has been placed before us. As I suggested last month, it is for this reason that we have established a statement of our mission, a statement which was prayerfully prepared based upon a careful reading of Scripture and a study of the essential elements associated with being the Church.
This month, I wish to begin reflection upon the first phrase within Little Rock’s mission statement: “to reach as many people as possible for Christ.” Throughout the witness of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, it has been God’s intention for his people to make Godself known to others. At the beginning of Abram’s calling in Genesis 12:2, God emphasized that Abram’s role would be one of not only experiencing the blessings of God, but also the certainty that Abram’s life would in turn become a blessing to all. Through the period of the patriarchs, Exodus, conquest, monarchy, Exile, and restoration, God’s people discovered much about God’s nature, how he relates to humanity, and his righteous expectations for those claiming to be of his chosen ones. The New Testament opens with the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the sending of his one and only Son to serve as the full and final sacrifice for the sinfulness of humankind. But not only did God prepare the way for human salvation, he also invited others to bear witness to their own personal experience of this grace. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that his followers are to be “salt and light” in such a way that others discover God for themselves and offer glory to him (Matthew 5:13-14). The Apostle Paul builds upon the words of Christ by insisting that as a people who have encountered God’s transformative power through Christ, the Church is to operate as “ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20). We know the word “ambassador” refers to one who represents or promotes a person, country, or cause.
Herein lies an essential part of our mission “to reach as many people as possible for Christ.” If we are to reach others, we must realize that it is not for our own sake that we desire to take on such a responsibility. There are many reasons as to why congregations want to “reach” others, but reaching with the wrong motivation only serves selfish purposes rather than the overall wellbeing of the Kingdom of God. Many Christians will agree with a statement along the lines of “We need to grow the church” or “We need to get more people saved,” but to what ends are such desires directed? Is it merely for the sake of improving attendance at various gatherings of the Church? Is it to “beef up” the membership numbers in order to keep in step with another congregation? Is it for the sake of increased giving toward various programs and ministries? If our primary focus in reaching the world is to provide a “yes” response to any of the aforementioned questions, then our priorities may find themselves somewhat out of kilter. When we read of the earliest witness of Christ’s followers as found within the Book of Acts, we discover that none of these emphases were of great importance to the Christian message. The central proclamation of the early Christ movement was that of “Christ is Lord.” For them this meant, as author N.T. Wright has stated in his work The Challenge of Jesus, that God was accomplishing something new in and through Jesus Christ, the reconciliation of the world unto himself.
This reconciling message proved to be a welcome source of transformative news to those willing to hear and receive the witness of those early Christians. The key to their effectiveness was not only their ability, but also their willingness to articulate in meaningful ways the implications of the Gospel message upon everyday life. Faithful men and women, as empowered by the Holy Spirit, used their experience of God’s grace in their own lives to become the basis of their faith story, a story which offered others a glimpse of the transformation possible through Jesus. According to I John 1:1, early Christians offered testimony to the things they came to experience as truth by “seeing and touching the word of life.” A testimony is one aspect of our Christian witness which, in addition to our faithful worship, personal study, and works of service, casts a light upon who God is to us, what we believe about God, and why this is so very important. When we think of witnesses being called upon in court cases, we consider individuals who can offer an accurate portrayal of events as they happened in a way that creates a picture for the jurors who otherwise would not be capable of understanding just what took place. Our witness, the story of our faith, is more than a five step process for leading someone to Christ. It is more than memorizing a selection of Scripture references to prove to others they need Christ. A Christian witness shows others through personal life experience how our lives have become different as a result of embracing Christ as Lord and Savior, and how the reality of our experience can be true for others as well.
By suggesting that we desire “to reach as many people as possible for Christ,” we are looking for more than increased membership or swapping members from one congregation to another. We are seeking for people to have a first- time experience with Jesus Christ. As we often hear in invitational moments of worship services, “It is the most important decision anyone can make in his or her life.” The key to being able to reach such people with the Good News is an enthusiasm for Christians to share with others why a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has proven meaningful for their own lives. I am not stating that we must be obnoxious in our efforts at witnessing, but rather that we should live with a “pep in our step” and “joy in our voices” as we speak about being a part of the Church and those things associated with the Kingdom of God. Next month, I will take a moment to consider further the important roll of being a witness especially when it comes to extending the invitation for others to come and experience Christ for themselves. The most effective tool of evangelism is not sending the pastor somewhere, but rather the simple effort required for laity to ask family, friends, and neighbors to allow them to share their story.
Reaching the Community Together,
The Rev. Kelley Smart