Evangelism as/vs Outreach: Part 2

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46; Isaiah 1:12-20

We continue our sermon series on evangelism. This is the second part of a two-part sermon on Outreach vs/as evangelism.

Let me remind you of a couple of simple definitions. Evangelism, at its root, is sharing the good news. To be evangelistic doesn’t mean to be a Billy Graham. It doesn’t mean to be a door knocker. It doesn’t mean to be somebody who hands out tracts to everybody they meet.

My father went through a phase like that. He had a baptism of fire during a midlife crisis when he had left home. When he came back, and for about six months after he came back, everybody he met, he would shake their hands and say, “Hi, I’m Roland Evans. Do you know the Lord?” As a fifteen-year-old I can tell you that it was incredibly embarrassing. All your parents embarrass you when you’re that age anyways, but this was really embarrassing.

Evangelism is sharing the gospel. It is something that we are commanded to do, and it is of utmost importance. Because it truly is, literally, a matter of life and death. Eternal life and eternal death, for those who respond to the hearing of the news.

And as we discovered, it can begin in the family, and should begin in the family, with kids and grandkids, and we went through practical ways of doing that. Again, I would invite you, if you haven’t heard it or seen it, the church website links to transcripts of the sermons.

Last week we discussed evangelism versus outreach, and how we need to differentiate between the two. Evangelism, mission, and outreach are not the same thing. We tend to conflate them all in our modern-day church, and it’s a problem.

If you read in the New Testament, with the beginnings of the church, there is a very clear difference. They were very evangelistic peoples, and they had a mission, a mission of sharing the gospel in new places. For us, mission can also mean supporting somebody who is doing that, but the point is sharing the gospel, evangelizing people.

Outreach is when we minister to people, whether it be body, mind, or spirit. So I said we need to differentiate between those, because too often, particularly in our kind of mainline church, we do outreach and we assume that that is evangelism, when it is not the case.

So having made the case for evangelism and its importance, I want to now address the idea of outreach and social action. To bring this relationship between the two into sharp focus, let us again make three assertions: that evangelism and social action or outreach are distinct activities; proclamation is central; but also, evangelism and social action are inseparable.

Now that sounds like a contradiction from the first statement, that they are distinct activities. I have to say, we have that kind of paradox, if you will, in much of our faith and doctrine. The Incarnation – Jesus was fully human, fully God. They don’t mix, but you can’t separate them either. And yet, He is the Christ, and we put our faith and trust in Him.

I also like to compare it to two sides of a coin. Unless you have a two-headed coin, which is cheating, you have a head side and you have a tail side and the two never see each other. They can’t, and yet they can’t be separated either.

Now fortunately, unlike a coin, you don’t have to do one or the other. Social involvement, at its best, is about harnessing the resources within a community. It is about empowering a community through their participation. The alternative is a paternalistic approach, which is short-term and creates dependency in its beneficiary.

Given that the greatest need of people is to be reconciled with God, and given that this need can only be met through the message of the Gospel, it may seem logical to say that evangelism has priority. And it might seem only a short step from saying proclamation is central to saying evangelism is our priority.

The problem is that it is not clear what priority means in this context. It suggests a choice in which evangelism should be chosen, or competing priorities in which social action can be neglected.

We prioritize by making a list and doing the activities on the top of the list. If there is no time left for items lower down on the list, then this doesn’t matter, because we have deemed such things less important. The implication of saying evangelism has priority in this sense makes it seem that it doesn’t matter if we have no time for social action or outreach. But such choices rarely bear any relationship to reality.

In our involvement in the lives of others, we cannot choose to ignore their social needs. We cannot treat people in isolation from their context. And we see, in the passage today, the message from Christ about those who ignore that outreach, who ignore those needs.

There is a lot of discussion in Jesus’ parables about negligence. People are condemned not just by what they do but even more so by what they don’t do, whether it was foolish virgins who didn’t have oil for their lamps, whether it was a servant who went and buried the money instead of utilizing it the way the master had said while he was gone, or whether it is this litany that we had today in Matthew, of all the different social needs that are out there, and whether or not we did anything about it.

Omission of social action, omission of outreach and ministry, is condemning. When you think about it, it makes sense, because people matter. They do. Everyone matters. God loves people. God said that everyone matters. In John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish.”

The “world” there is cosmos – it means all the people in it. He’s not talking about our little blue globe. He’s talking about the people on the globe, like the children song goes, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” People matter, and God loves people. So we’re supposed to love people.

Jesus ministered to the sick. People who are sick matter. People who are in prison matter. He said “I have come to free those who are in shackles.” We like to say that he was speaking of those who are shackled in sin. And that is without a doubt a core message of the Gospel, the liberty we gain. But those who are imprisoned in a variety of contexts still need our concern.

People who don’t have enough food or water matter. People who don’t have enough clothes matter. And it’s not just in tragedies that that’s important. We as a church – and I don’t mean just this church, but as a church, we are very good at responding to disasters. We like to send money. We like to send people, on trips to help people rebuild, after hurricanes, after tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, all those sort of things.

When people have a fire and their house burns down, it’s a wonderful thing to see how the community pulls together to help that family get clothes and the basic necessities of life, so that they can remain a healthy part of the community.

But there are those who struggle, by no choice of their own. There are those the game the system, but there are those who struggle by no choice of their own, and they need to care as well. We volunteer and give money to the food pantry, because people matter. There’s the Clothes Depot, because people matter.

We can’t do one without the other. James says faith without works is dead. That doesn’t mean that you have to work to get into heaven. Salvation is only achieved through faith and belief in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, that his blood shed for you cleansed you of your sins, and his resurrection gave you new life, if you believe in him, and you confess with your mouth that he is Lord.

However, if you have faith, it must be expressed. It’s not just a simple thing that we come into church on Sunday, and say something like the Apostles Creed, or when we have somebody who’s joining the church, have the affirmation of faith, and then everything’s hunky-dory and we leave and we go on our way.

Faith needs to be lived. And next week, we’ll talk a little bit about evangelism as a lifestyle. But today, I want to focus on outreach.

In today’s story, Jesus isn’t talking about just any person without food or clothes or freedom, by the way. He’s specifically talking about believers – Christians, his brothers and sisters in the family of God.

He spoke to this in another setting, when he said, in Matthew 10:42 “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

The apostle Paul echoed this theme when he wrote in Galatians 6 “Therefore as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.” People matter to God,. and they should matter to us. Because God loves people.

So we need to take those opportunities for outreach. But what we need to understand is that that’s not the be all and end all. And the best way we can do things is if we fuse things together.

There was an essay question on a test in a theology class I had in seminary. The scenario was that you’re on the Presbyterian Board of Missions, and we support and a built a hospital in a South American country, and that country gets taken over by a military coup.

The leader of that coup says we can keep the hospital and keep it running, but we have to get rid of all the services, we have to get rid of all the Bibles, we have to get rid of any prayers, we have to get rid of any sign of Christianity.

As a member of the board, you are supposed to be considering, do you accept those conditions and continue to support the hospital, or do you pull your money and try to put it elsewhere in a place that is more congenial to the sharing of the gospel as well as giving aid and comfort to the people?

As many of you know, I’m kind of ornery. So I actually answered the question by saying “Neither.” What I would posit is that the only real course that is Biblical for us to do is to keep the hospital open. And we may get rid of a worship service, but we would certainly keep the Bibles, and to every person who comes across the threshold of that hospital, we would say, “Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of mankind.”

Because if we don’t do that, we’re not achieving our mission. And they may see fit to close us down, and that’s what God may will. But imagine the witness, if we make it through, and the government backs off.

I got a comment from the professor that said, “This is a wonderful explanation and theology, but it didn’t answer the question I asked.” So I only got part credit. But that doesn’t make it less true.

We need to utilize ministry, not in a manipulative way, but as an opportunity to be able to openly and comfortably share the good news of Jesus Christ. As we minister to people, and they’re thankful, if they ask, “Why are you doing this to help us?” then we say, “Because Jesus Christ died for you, as He died for me. And He loves you, as He loves me. So how can I do any less?” So we give food, clothing, whatever it might be.

And it means going out. I mentioned that last week. We need to go out to where the people are. We can’t always bring them in here. It’s a shame, but we can’t.

And that’s really what ministry of outreach is about. The very word “outreach” means you are reaching out. You are going to where they are, meeting them where they are, meeting them in their need. And as you do that, you take the opportunity to share the good news.

When you do that, then you will know that you have been faithful. For if you have faith, it will show itself in serving God. As Jeff Strite puts it, “Good deeds are the fruit of your salvation, not the root of your salvation.”

I want to give you one encouragement, that I’ll go into more in depth next week. That is, don’t expect or count your success by the number of conversions. Don’t be discouraged if you talk to people, share the gospel, and they don’t seem to respond, or if you invite people to church and they don’t respond, this time. Continue to persevere.

Because it can take time. It can take multiple exposures. And really, what we’re called to do is not to produce results. That’s the Holy Spirit. That’s one of the cool things about being Reformed and Presbyterian, we get to lay it all on God.

It’s His responsibility. He elected. He predestined, from before time began, who was chosen and who was not. His Spirit is the one who opens people’s eyes and convicts them of their sins, and helps them to recognize the glory and good news of Christ. His Spirit is the one that regenerates.

So it’s all on God. But we have a responsibility. That responsibility is to tell people – to tell people about it, to share it, in a winsome and persistent manner.

So they are truly two sides of the same coin. But at the same time, we can also do both at once. And they should both be there, in all that we do.

Look for opportunities. This community, at large, is one of the poorest in the state of Iowa. There is a lot of need. There is a lot of what they call “food insecurity” these days. There is a lot of need for clothing. There’s a lot of need for stuff. The economy is beginning to boom, and we can hope that things change for people, but in the meantime, we’re called to minister to that need, first within the church, and then outside.

The church that would thrive must be outward-focused. If all we do is navel-gaze and check ourselves, then we fail. Because we won’t see those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who have no clothes, those who are in prison, those who are sick.

And when we come before Jesus – and every one of us will, that’s the other part of this passage in Matthew – we will be held accountable.

So take the joy that you have received, and share it. Share it.

Kenny Carlson, when he had his memorial service, they gave me a Swedish saying to put on the front of the bulletin. It was “Burdens divided are lighter. Joys shared are greater.”

May we do that for each other, and the world at large, bringing praise to God for the wondrous things He has done. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: