Scripture: Acts 13:1–3 & 14:8–18
“What is your view on evangelism?”
If you put ten Christians in a room together, even ten Christians who agree on a lot of theology, you will be sure to find some dividing lines if you ask them this question. I remember that one of the first sermon series I ever preached here at First Baptist was based on this little book by Jeffrey Johnson: Got Style?: Personality-based Evangelism. As soon as I brought up the word “evangelism,” I could see those divisions within the church quite clearly!
A lot of Christians would assert that evangelism is the church’s most important calling. They talk about the Great Commission, and making disciples. They might name examples of how an assertive style of evangelism is what worked in their faith journey, or talk about how they have used programs like Evangelism Explosion or other intentional programs meant to share the Gospel.
Meanwhile, a lot of Christians have rejected this brand of evangelism, and along with it the very word “evangelism” itself. They reject what they would call a “hit and run” type of encounter. They reject the simplicity that leaves out nuance or longer-term relationship. They reject a certain kind of colonialism that suggests that I am going to conquer or overpower you with my version of the truth. And at a larger level, they reject what often comes along with this style of conversion, namely a conversion to a certain political ideology or nationalistic fervor. In their minds, “evangelism” is all of these things, and therefore evangelism is bad.
When I began this book back then, I got questions about all of that, some folks cheering me on that evangelism is the most important task of the church, and other folks wondering if this thing called “evangelism” was something that our church even ought to be associated with! We’ll get back to this word in a moment.
But first, a second question. If you kept those ten Christians in a room and somehow got through the question on evangelism, and they miraculously hadn’t run out angry at each other, then maybe you could press your luck with another question:
“What are your views on Paul?”
The man named Saul or Paul in the New Testament is equally polarizing in the Church. There are some folks who deeply value his contribution to Christianity, and suggest that we wouldn’t even have a Church if it weren’t for Paul, that his evangelism is the entire reason why the institutional church has survived. There are many churches that primarily preach from his epistles. They value his words and theological concepts pretty much at the top of the list when it comes to Christian thought. I have had a conversation with folks before, in which I quoted the words of Jesus, only to have folks refute me with the words of Paul, as if he trumps Jesus in the Christian theology department! I really think sometimes folks believe that Paul is the fourth person of the Trinity! And maybe kind of the first person! I have wondered sometimes if there isn’t a part of the faith that should more rightly be called Paulist instead of Christian!
Meanwhile, there are a lot of Christians on the other side of the spectrum. They would be just fine if we left Paul out of the New Testament. Cut those books out completely! Specifically, a lot of folks struggle with the words that he wrote about women, in his context. Others struggle with the way that he suggests that we accept those in power instead of questioning that power on moral grounds. Yet others struggle with the ways that his words have been used against LGBTQ persons. Some just think he was an arrogant jerk. I had someone tell me a couple of years ago that they just don’t think that they can come to church anymore because of the deep suspicions they have about the writings of Paul. This can be a big deal for folks.
We might get into some of those theological specifics in the next few weeks, as the narrative lectionary invites us to look at the book of Romans. But before we get there, let’s take a minute today and look at Paul, the person. The book of Acts introduces Paul in what I would call a third way. He is not an angel, or the perfect disciple, or the fourth part of the Trinity. But also he is not a demon, demanding unyielding allegiance in the way that some folks try to give it to him. He’s… a guy. A follower of Jesus. Not perfect, but someone with some pretty specific gifts. And today’s passage shows this to be the case. Here are a few thoughts about the guy named Paul:
- Paul was always a part of a team. We often forget this fact because he is the common denominator, but whenever we hear about Paul, it is “Paul and Silas,” “Paul and Timothy,” “Paul and John Mark,” and today, “Paul and Barnabas.” I thought it was interesting the way that the two of them were called in today’s passage. It wasn’t Paul and his assistant, Barnabas. The two of them were raised up side-by-side from the community to be sent out. Throughout the New Testament, Paul is always tied to the community, not a lone wolf. Even in his letters, he acknowledges that he is writing them with someone else—a co-missionary, or a scribe, or a whole community of believers. In today’s passage, the townspeople in Lystra confuse them with Zeus and his messenger Hermes: Greek gods. Paul is the spokesperson, but not the guy in charge: Zeus. When Paul is at his best, he is part of a team.
- Second, Paul was never the hero of the story; the Holy Spirit always was. The Church wouldn’t cease to exist without him! Did you notice how it wasn’t Saul’s gifts that put him head and shoulders above the others in those first few verses? It was the Holy Spirit that literally said, “Here’s the guys. Send these guys!” Then, it is telling later that when the people of Lystra start to worship him and Barnabas, both of them tear their clothes in grief. Because they knew that if they were getting the attention, they were doing it wrong. The Holy Spirit is the one calling the shots and doing the work. Paul is the recipient of the Spirit’s gifts and faithful servant of that Spirit.
- There’s a third thing that’s helpful for us to think about today: Paul’s gift was evangelism. This may seem obvious, after all, his missionary efforts are legendary. But let me nuance this…
To do so, let’s go back to Jeffrey Johnson’s book about what he calls style-based evangelism. He suggests that instead of simplifying evangelism with a one-note script, we ought to broaden the ways that we talk about the word. He would definitely suggest that evangelism is something that all Christians should do, but opens the door to a lot of iterations of the word. In short, he suggests six different styles of evangelism that all Christians will fit into in one way or another:
- Assertive: this is what a lot of Christians associate with the word “evangelism,” for better or worse, and is the quick-hitting, quick-conversion, “sales” type style
- Analytical (or Intellectual): longer-term, but still rather heady, rational, logical
- Storytelling: drawing on our own experiences, or in a teaching model like Jesus and his parables
- Relational: sharing our faith over the long haul, caring about more than one moment in time, but building a longer relationship; this is where [More Ready Than You Realize author Brian] McLaren’s “spiritual friendship” could fit
- Invitational: come to this event to learn about Jesus, or come to church along with me
- Incarnational: needs-oriented or service-based; assumption is that we will share the good news by meeting people where they are and where their needs are
Johnson suggests that evangelism is not just one of these things, but all of them. And each of us tends to fall into one or two categories, but in most cases not all of them. There’s even a test in the book, to figure out which is our style.
But, then, Johnson suggests that some folks have the gift of evangelism. What he seems to mean is that some Christians can move in and out of all of the styles. They can be assertive when the need arises, or intellectual, or autobiographical, and on down the line. Paul does it all. Often times, he is assertive and blunt. In Athens, he is intellectual. In Corinth, he lives for 18 months, slowly building relationships. Among Jews, he would play up his Jewish heritage and training, and his own story of upbringing and his miraculous conversion. Here in Lystra, his words tend toward the incarnational. He never speaks about Jesus, but uses terms in conjunction with their everyday lives: rain that nourishes crops, the joy of a really good meal. Paul could move in and out of all six of these styles, depending on what people needed in that specific context. Justo Gonzalez says that Paul was a “bridge” personality. He was a Roman citizen, and could move freely in that world, and he was trained as a Jew and could speak to those who followed the God of Abraham. Even his name suggests this: did you notice that in chapter 13 he is called Saul, but in 14 he is called Paul? It is mistaken to suggest that he changed his name when he was converted on the Damascus Road. His two names demonstrate his versatility in dealing with different folks. Jewish Saul or Roman Paul.
So let’s use Paul’s example as a way to answer that first question again: what is your view on evangelism?
- We have to remember that we are part of a team. It is never us alone in the world. Johnson’s categories are a helpful reminder of this. We need each other in this shared work of bringing the ethic of Jesus to the world. Some of us are going to do this in an assertive way. Others more intellectual. Others are testimonial. And on down the list. By the way, any guesses which of these three were more prevalent in our church? There is a survey that goes with the book and we had a bunch of people fill it out to see what their style was. Any guesses which ones were the highest? Intellectual. Relational. Incarnational. Now, that was 13 years ago, but perhaps that would still be the case. So it isn’t just different kinds of people, but different kinds of churches that do this “good news” thing differently.
- It isn’t our work anyway. This really is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Again, Johnson’s book suggests that the Holy Spirit doesn’t only show up in miraculous healings, or silver-tongued preachers, or Pentecostal explosions. The Holy Spirit shows up when you tell your co-worker about your cancer treatments and how you felt God beside you. Or when you talk about a good book that impacted your faith. Or when you call a friend and ask them how they are doing. Or volunteer at Family Promise. That is Holy Spirit work! Don’t dare underestimate what the Spirit is doing with and in you.
- Not all of us are Pauls, when it comes to evangelism. That is kind of the basic point of the book. Most of us are not Paul, who can do all six of these. Most of us are good at one, or two. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up and say “I don’t do evangelism” because we aren’t Paul. Or because we aren’t some stereotype of what evangelism looks like. We do “us.” And that looks different with different “us-es.”
We aren’t all Paul. But we don’t have to be. We just have to be who God made us to be. And that is enough.