The Presbyterian Pulpit
The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE "E" WORD

Delivered 9/24/2000
Text: John 1:35-42a
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Today is EVANGELISM SUNDAY on our Presbyterian calendar. That is a relatively new emphasis for our denomination. To be sure, Presbyterians have always SAID evangelism is important, but our action (or lack of action) spoke even louder. One stuffy Presbyterian once called Dwight L. Moody to task for relying so much on emotion to win converts during his revivals. Moody's response? He admitted that his methods were not perfect, but he concluded, "I like my way of doing it better than your way of NOT doing it." Sad to say, that IS us...or at least it has been!

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Presbyterian? Answer: Someone who will ring doorbells but then, when someone answers, doesn't know what to say. Hmmm.

In a way, I understand that. For many of us, what passes for "evangelism" is something with which we want nothing to do. In my files I have an old story the national news picked up which came out of the little town of Marion, North Carolina. Young Duffey Strode had been sent home from his first day at school, suspended for ten days. His crime? Preaching hellfire and damnation to his fellow students on the playground of the Eastfield Elementary School. The controversy was a continuation of one that had begun the year before. Duffey had staked out the back entrance to the school shouting out Bible verses condemning the other youngsters as whoremongers, adulterers and fornicators, all with the purpose of calling them to repentance and winning them to Christ.

Now, I do not know about you, but when I was in Elementary School, if someone had called me a whoremonger or a fornicator or an adulterer, I would not have had the foggiest notion what he meant. The only passions I had were baseball and peanut butter. I did not learn about the birds and the bees until I was twelve, and even then I was not sure I believed it. At any rate, I doubt that too many Elementary school students would feel moved to repent of their whoremongering.

Duffey Strode was 11-years-old when all this broke. I realize that children are more advanced these days than I was at the same age, but I doubt that he knew a great deal more about sexual sin than I did. Obviously, he had been spoon-fed those verses by his father, an unemployed machinist and self-styled street preacher himself. In a way, I applaud Mr. Strode for being so sincere in his faith and bringing his children up the same way. I applaud the sincerity with which people are called to repentance. I applaud the sincerity with which he approached a task that too many Christians run from...evangelism. Yes, the Strodes were nothing if not sincere. But I suspect most of us would probably add, Sincerely WRONG! I doubt that any of us figures that the Strode's method of preaching the gospel will effectively win anyone to Christ or the church.

The question raised then is what WILL win them? After all, the last thing the Lord told us to do...the Great Commission... was get out there and MAKE DISCIPLES.(1) It was not a suggestion; it was command!

I read of one fellow's efforts. This man was not well educated and his manner was somewhat rough and crude. He became a Christian and took the Lord's requirement seriously. He kept pestering his pastor to put him to work. Finally, the minister handed him a list of ten names with this explanation: "These are all members of the church, but they seldom attend. Some of them are prominent people in the community. Contact them about being more faithful. Here is some church stationary to write letters. Get them back in church."

The man accepted the challenge with rugged determination and enthusiasm. About three weeks later a letter from a prominent physician whose name had been on the list arrived at the church office. Inside was a large check and a brief note: "Dear Pastor, Enclosed is my check for $1,000 to help make up for my missing church so much, but be assured that I will be present this Lord's Day and each Lord's Day following. I will not by choice miss services again. Sincerely... P.S. Would you please tell your secretary that there is only one `T' in dirty and no `C' in Skunk."

I do not guess too many of us would take that approach either. The problem is that most Christians, especially those of us from relatively conservative mainline traditions, take no approach at all. Evangelism is the "E" word; there is something mildly disreputable about it. We feel uncomfortable about the images it conjures up...accosting people on the street and stuffing a tract in their hands; threatening people with the fires of eternal hell like young Duffey Strode unless they make a commitment; revival preachers interminably imploring "just one more" to raise that hand and make a decision for Christ; folks with bad hair on cable TV imploring folks to send more money to keep this soul-winning ministry on the air. That is not us. That is not our way of reaching people.

Do you know whose way I like? The fellow we met in our lesson from John's gospel a moment ago...Andrew...the apostle with the missionary heart. Apparently, he had always been a religious man - up till now he had been a disciple of John the Baptist, another fire and brimstone preacher in the manner of the Strodes. But one day Andrew met Jesus...and Andrew was never the same again. Three times we find him on center stage in the Gospel record: here, when he introduced his brother Simon to Christ; in John 6, when he introduced the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus; and in John 12, as he introduced some devout Greeks to the Savior. Andrew was always introducing people to the Lord. We do not know very much about Andrew other than that, but that which we DO know is wonderfully attractive...and at the same time, a wonderful model for Christians who desperately need some help in doing "the `E' word."

And we do need help. Sadly, we have to admit that our efforts at evangelism have not been that wonderful. I read where one fellow said, "Last year we had a membership drive in our church...We drove off 53."

A look at the membership statistics say we had better not laugh at that. For the past generation, everyone of the long-established denominations has seen a decrease in the number of people on the roll. Gallup polls on America's religious attitudes and beliefs reflect the decline: since 1947 there has been a slow but sure erosion in the numbers. Recent figures show that of American adults, 68% say they are members of a church or synagogue.(2) But even that is misleading. After all, just within our own family, some 6-million say they are Presbyterian, but our statistics reflect less than half of them as actual members. As to those who attend worship regularly, the figures are even worse: 60% say they attend religious services on a regular basis; 36% claim they attend weekly or more often(3) - less than two out of five - but the actual numbers are half that.

However, in all that bad news, there is one figure that has remained remarkably consistent through the years - 95% of America believes in God. Eighty-four percent say they believe that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God; two-thirds say they have made a personal commitment to him. Yet, they stay away from church.

Why? Do they hate the institutional church? Some perhaps. But not most. Gallup figures indicate that almost three out of five of the unchurched...and they are defined as those who have not been to church for more than six months except for a holiday or special occasion - they might have their name on a roll somewhere (maybe even right here), but they do not come...three out of five say they would "definitely" or "probably" or "possibly" return to the fellowship. And all of those numbers have held consistent in recent years.

So why do they not come? There are lots of reasons that could be given...excuses, really. But I would be willing to bet that the biggest reason a lot of them do not come is because NO ONE EVER ASKED THEM TO!

Do we HAVE to ask? One man came out of his house on his way to church on Sunday morning just as his neighbor came out with his golf clubs. "Hey, Henry," the neighbor called, "Come play golf with me."

The man said, "Sorry, it's Sunday, and Sunday means church."

After a moment's silence, the golfer quietly said, "You know, Henry, I've often wondered about your church, and I have admired your faithfulness. You know I always invite you to play golf with me, but you have never invited me to go to church with you."

The lesson for you and me in incidents like that is that WE DO HAVE TO ASK! With Andrew, we have to extend an invitation. In a survey of twenty-two congregations in three major cities, newcomers were asked, "What brought you to this church?" The responses: 2%, an advertisement; 6%, an invitation by the pastor; 6% an organized evangelistic outreach program; and 86%, an invitation by a friend or family member.(4) That is more than four out of five. I mentioned a minute ago that the large established denominations have all been losing members in significant numbers in recent years. Actually, the Southern Baptists are an exception - despite their terrible internal theological battles and occasionally strange social pronouncements, they have been holding their own. There have been studies made about that. Is it because of their theology? No. Is it because of the position they take on social issues? No. Is it because of their style of worship? No. It is because Baptists have been taught to invite people to church...and they do it! They are ALWAYS doing it. In contrast, the average Episcopalian invites someone...once every 28 years.(5) Don't smirk: the average Presbyterian is no better, and we all know it! No wonder there is a problem.

Why do we not do it? Do we like our church? Sure, or we would not be here ourselves. Do we have anything worth inviting folks to? Of course - there are good things always going on. Do we care about people? Absolutely! We have GOOD REASON to ask people to come and join us. Back to that Jehovah's Witness/ Presbyterian combination: willing to ring the doorbell but then have nothing to say? At First Presbyterian we have LOTS to say.

The command of the Savior is still there...Make disciples! Would you like to do better with the "E" word? Would you like to be an Andrew? Then permit me to offer a few suggestions.

First, pray about your inviting. Ask the Lord to help you identify those who will be most receptive to your invitation. As the Gallup poll indicates, there are plenty of them out there who are waiting for a chance, even an excuse, to get back to church.

Second, do not be content with offering simply a general invitation: "Come to church sometime." That is the same as saying, "Come see me sometime" or "Let's do lunch." The response will probably be a courteous, "Sure," and then never thought of again. Instead, make your invitation specific...to a particular service or special event - World Communion next week, Kirk Nite on a Wednesday, the installation of your new pastor on October 29th.

Third, offer your invitation in times of special need. Times of stress, times of change, times of loss are all moments when people are longing for some GOOD NEWS in the midst of all the bad. We HAVE that good news, the news of a Savior who knows our needs and responds to us through a heart of love.

Fourth, invite your friends to come WITH YOU. People will be much more inclined to come if they know in advance that they will not be lost and alone in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Arrange to bring them or meet them at the church and sit together.

Fifth, be persistent. Just because your friend cannot come with you THIS week, do not assume that there is no interest. Do not be obnoxious, but ask again...and again...and again. After all, if we truly believe that a relationship with the risen Christ is something GOOD, we cannot be selfish about it.

Finally, do not get discouraged. If your friend just says no, do not blame yourself. You have done what you could and should have done. The Holy Spirit can take it from there.

I like that kind of evangelism far more than that practiced by the Duffey Strodes of this world. Don't you? I feel sorry for Duffey. He is obviously a committed young Christian, and the world needs all of those it can get. I hope he has gotten things straightened out by now, not only with school, but with his understanding of evangelism. To Duffey's credit, it is not just the "E" word. It is a way of life in faithful response to the command of his Savior. But I hope someone, someday, tells Duffey about Andrew.

Amen!


1. Matthew 28:19-20

2. www.gallup.com reporting on a poll taken March 17-19, 2000

3. ibid.

4. Roy Oswald, Making Your Church More Inviting, (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1992), p. 57

5. Joe Donoho, Good News Travels Faster, (Decatur, GA: CTS Press, 1990), p. 22

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