What Will It Take to Reach Others? (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! (The Message)

What will it take? 

What will it take to impact the world with the gospel of grace? 

What will it take to reach your neighbor with the love of God in Christ? 

What will it take to positively influence your relative, co-worker, or friend in grace and truth? 

The answer? It will take becoming a servant to them all. 

Reaching others with the glorious and incredible good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus requires us to relinquish our rights and freedoms in order to have a ministry of presence. 

Somehow, far too many Churches and Christians have adopted the wrongheaded notion that they can reach people without interacting with them. They wing-it with a few tepid prayers, wishing that people will magically show up their church or event in order to experience their friendliness.

But it takes going to where people are and engaging in real human relationship to reach another person. It ought to be obvious, yet it isn’t for a lot of folks:

We have to be around other people in order to reach them. 

That’s why reaching the party-crowd takes going to the bar. 

It’s why reaching young moms takes sitting with them at the park while the kids play. 

It’s why reaching kids requires getting on the floor with them and playing what they want to play.

This is why it takes being present among the various people, businesses, and institutions in the community in order to reach them.

The goal is not to get other people to show up on our turf and become just like us. The goal is not for us to remain in comfortable surroundings while we expect others to get over their uncomfortableness to be with us.

Rather, the goal is to show up on their turf and relate to them, to become like them.

If it weren’t in the Bible we might think it blasphemous to say such a thing. But there it is, and we must wrestle with its implications for our lives. So, what needs to change?

My wife and I have a lot of experience working with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients – which means we also end up working a lot with their adult children and grandchildren. It’s difficult watching a person who raised you becoming a different person, living in a different world.

Many relatives try their darndest to get mom or dad back into “reality,” to return to their original selves and their surroundings. So, they correct, cajole, and criticize, in order to reach them and pull them back from their supposed mental abyss.

And it doesn’t work. More than that, it’s not only unhelpful, but it’s also often hurtful.

Instead of expecting a dementia patient to come into my world, I must go into their world.

Just the other day, my wife was talking with a self-described “Ninja Priestess.” And this dear woman was refusing to wear her socks on a hospital floor – which cannot happen in a healthcare setting. She didn’t want to wear them because “it diminishes my power and my connection to the ground.”

If we insist on remaining in our world, this immediately becomes a fight. Ultimatums are issued. Policies are pronounced. Security is called because everything escalates out of control.

Yet, if we enter the dear woman’s world, we choose to see things from her perspective and not ours.

My wife’s response? “It’s okay. The socks are cotton. All natural. They won’t hinder your power, at all.” And off they went together down the hall without incident and the patient feeling cared for and empowered.

When it comes to reaching people – anyone, no matter who they are – we must be willing to enter their world and be a part of it, seeing things as they see it, understanding where they’re coming from, without judgment and with plenty of empathy and compassion.

But if we insist on colonizing others in order to harvest their souls for our own spiritual benefit, then we have failed to understand the spirit and intent of the Apostle Paul’s teaching to us.

Being a servant means exactly that – serving others by listening, washing their feet, giving them time, and making compassionate connections.

God has cut us into the action of divine purposes in this world. This is privileged work. So, let’s do it with all the care and concern given us by the Spirit.

Merciful God, help us, your people, to live wisely among those who don’t yet know you, so that they can see the light of Christ in us, hear the words of Christ from us, and experience the salvation of Christ which is in us. Amen.

Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.

Thinking About Outreach

 
 
Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul whom is found is the grounds for a big celestial party (Luke 15:7, 10, 32).  Jesus told three stories in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, that all teach the same thing, so that we would be absolutely sure to get it:  a loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found.  These parables of Jesus are meant primarily to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage of this world to find one lost valuable person.
 
            Why should every church make reaching others for Jesus Christ a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority to God.  Lost people matter so much to him that he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.
 
            I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God, and estranged from the church – it was lonely and awful.  My life before Christ felt like I was walking through a cemetery at night and fell into an open grave, with no way out and no one to hear my screams.  But God, in his great mercy, sent people into my life to share the message of salvation from my prodigal way of life of sin and misery.  When I turned from the path of destruction I was on and embraced Jesus Christ there was a big party in heaven!
 
            In the story of the prodigal lost son, that son hit rock bottom and rehearsed a speech he would give to his father when he came back.  He never got to finish that speech, because the father interrupted his confession of sin and got the celebration going!  (Luke 15:17-24).  We celebrate the things that are important to us.  Lost people matter so much to God that it is a cause for a great celebration.  God’s grace steps in and takes over, erasing past sin and bringing radical forgiveness and reconciliation.
 
            It needs to be asked:  Where do we find ourselves in these parables?  These three stories were offensive to Christ’s original hearers.  Those listening to Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.  What is more, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were offended because they thought all this fuss about sinners would just highlight their sin!  There should be no party for them because of how they lived.
 
            We must understand that preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation.  The elder son in the story of the prodigal was inwardly obsessed instead of outwardly compassionate like his father.  It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:13).  If we hear such verses and listen to all this talk about outreach and being concerned for sinners who don’t know Jesus and say:  “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me?”  Then, we must locate ourselves as the person who is lost and in need of being found by God’s grace.
 
            We need the father’s heart when it comes to others.  We need a heart of grace.  Think of the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being like the devil.  Now picture if that person were to be found by God and become a Christian.  Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery?  If any one of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost ones in need of turning from sin.
 
            In the first story of Luke 15, a shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep and went after the one lost sheep. The shepherd, who represents God, gave preferential attention to the lost one.  Can you live with that?  What do these parables mean for our church programs, budgets, and committees?  Today in America only one-in-five lost people even knows one Christian.  Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it bothers me and makes me sad.  It drives me to prayer, and causes me to follow my compassionate wife’s example of going after lost people.  My wife, Mary, has never met a person that she didn’t think needed to hear the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  If we have no relationships with lost people, then we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to follow Jesus in his mission to find sinners and call them home.  We need to ask ourselves if we have the father’s heart.
 
            God’s unconditional amazing grace makes a difference.  If we lose that sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach.  Reaching out and finding a lost person is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.  Outreach is fueled by passion and desire.  Healthy Christians reproduce themselves.  I am guessing that, if you have children, you probably did not take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and, you celebrated when there was a birth of new life.
 

 

            God’s heart is one that longs for the lost people of this world to be reconciled and brought back into relationship with him.  Thus, reaching out to the lost people of this world is to be of the utmost importance to the church.  That will only happen if we share the same heart of the Father.