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Sermon illustrations

Evangelism

Certainty vs. Vulnerability

In this excerpt from his book Faith in the Shadows, pastor and author Austin Fischer shares a surprising truth about the need to be vulnerable with our own faith if we are likely to have a positive impact on unbelievers:

As a personal anecdote, I’ve always found that unbelievers are much less offended by the hypocrisy of our morality than they are the hypocrisy of our certainty. Every human, believer or unbeliever knows what it’s like to fail to live up to one’s beliefs, to fail to embody one’s moral ideals. Moral hypocrisy is a universal experience, so unbelievers can be remarkably understanding of our moral fragility because they know it too.

What unbelievers fail to understand is how we can pretend to be certain of things we obviously cannot be certain of…I once spoke with an atheist who told me he would love to hear me explain the coherence of Christian faith, but not until I admitted that, while a believer, I was also uncertain about my beliefs.

I asked why and he curtly responded, because I haven’t any time to waste talking about something this important with someone who lacks the decency to admit we are two uncertain human beings trying to make sense of mysteries. I know that I am an uncertain human. Do you?” Sadly, at the time I did not, so our conversation floundered on the shoals of my unacknowledged uncertain (or humanity).

Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Distancing Ourselves with our Simplistic Plotines

If my testimony of the gospel revolves around a plotline of, “I used to struggle with this, but God gave me the victory and now I’m free/healed/saved/fill in the blank,” I have immediately distanced myself from the listener of my testimony by implying that I have arrived in a place where they are not.

No doubt we do find freedom, healing, and salvation in Christ — and want that for others, too — but the reality continues to be that we ourselves are also in process. The power of the gospel is not that we no longer suffer or struggle, but that we no longer do so alone.

Shannon K. Evans, Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World, Our Sunday Visitor, 2019.

Evangelism as a Multi-Vitamin

I once asked a woman if she felt comfortable about evangelism. “Oh, yes!” she responded. “I do it twice a week.” (Somehow it sounded more like taking multiple vitamins.) Evangelism isn’t just something you “do”—out there—and then get back to normal living. Evangelism involves taking people seriously, getting across to their island of concerns and needs, and then sharing Christ as Lord in the context of our natural living situations.

Taken from Out of the Saltshaker & Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. ©1999 by Rebecca Manley Pippert.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

He’s Got the Whole World…on His Shoulders

Bruce Larson had an unusual way of convincing people to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ.  When he was working in New York City, he would walk a man or woman downtown to the front of the RCA building on Fifth Avenue.  In front of the building there is a gigantic statue of a massively proportioned, magnificently muscled Atlas, the world resting on his shoulders.  As powerfully built as he is, he is straining under the weight, barely able to stand.  Larson would say, “Now that’s one way to live, trying to carry the world on your shoulders.  But now come across the street with me.”

Across the street is St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  There behind the altar is a little shrine of the boy Jesus.  He appears to be no more than eight or nine years old.  As little and as frail as he appears, he is holding the world in one hand!  Then Larson would say, “We have a choice.  We can carry the world on our shoulders, or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord; here’s my life.  I give you my world, the whole world.’”

Taken from Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent by Ben Patterson Copyright (c) 1989 by Ben Patterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Love in Action

When I was growing up, my dad was a farmer, not a Christian. He had little interest in faith, having been told by his father that the Bible was a fairy tale. But then a local pastor took an interest in my dad, asking if he could help plow the fields on the weekend.

That one act of service spoke louder than words ever could to my dad. By his actions, the pastor made my dad feel loved, and that did more than any preaching could have. He didn’t need convincing about the theological correctness of the Bible; he needed to feel God’s love for him. This pastor met that need in a practical way. And that’s evangelism.

Dawn Pick Benson 

Moving to the Front Yard 

Tom and Angela had lived in their neighborhood for about twelve years without really getting to know many people. They lived in a cul-de-sac of eleven houses and had limited communication and interaction with the people around them. They admitted that this felt strange because they really had a desire to know their neighbors better, but nobody was making the first move…A number of years went by until finally Tom and Angela decided to do something. One of the biggest factors that had been preventing them from engaging their neighbors was timidity. ..They began by taking one simple step. They switched yards. Their kids had always played in the backyard, and that setting was the social hub of the family.

So Tom and Angela simply switched to the front yard. They put up a swing in a front-yard tree and added some lawn chairs; that was about it. Nothing happened at first. Then over the next few weeks, children and even dogs began to migrate into their front yard. Eventually adults followed. Soon both kids and adults were spending more time in their front yard than they could ever have imagined. And all they had done to attract this traffic was hang out where they could be seen.

Then Tom and Angela decided to go a step further by organizing a series of block parties. Surprisingly, the first one they held went over quite well. All the neighbors really needed was someone to step forward and break the ice. Other parties followed…The results were powerful. Barriers were broken down, and people started getting to know each other. Soon they were inviting one another into their homes. Neighbors began to assist neighbors in various ways…

Jay Pathak. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside your Door.

Our Problem with Evangelism

Christians and non-Christians have something in common: we’re both uptight about evangelism. Our fear as Christians seems to be How many people did I offend this week? We think that we must be a little obnoxious in order to be good evangelists. A tension builds inside: Should I be sensitive to people and forget about evangelism, or should I blast them with the gospel and forget about their dignity as human beings?

Many Christians choose to be aware of the person but then feel defensive and guilty for not evangelizing…Our problem in evangelism is not that we don’t have enough information—it is that we don’t know how to be ourselves. We forget we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen and know, not to what we don’t know. The key on our part is authenticity and obedience, not a doctorate in theology. We haven’t grasped that it really is OK for us to be who we are when we are with seekers, even if we don’t have all the answers to their questions or if our knowledge of Scripture is limited. But there is a deeper problem here.

Our uneasiness with non-Christians reflects our uneasiness with our own humanity. Because we are not certain about what it means to be human (or spiritual, for that matter), we struggle in relating naturally, humanly to the world. For example, many of us avoid evangelism for fear that we will offend someone. Yet how often have we told our skeptical friends that that’s why we are hesitating?

Taken from Out of the Saltshaker & Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. ©1999 by Rebecca Manley Pippert.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Overproduction and Poor Distribution

The story is told of a man who served in George Washington’s cabinet. He was totally bald. The top of his head would have been the envy of a shiny billiard ball. But in contrast to that barren scalp, he had a long, flowing bushy beard. Washington pointed to him, with a touch of humor, as someone particularly reflective of the problem of “overproduction and poor distribution.”

That may well be the problem that we, as Christians, have lived with in terms of evangelism for the past two generations. Even more do I notice this problem of “overproduction and poor distribution” as I meet and talk with the next generation.

We are not doing too well at being “out there” and sharing our lives and our message with the people God has placed in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our friendship groups, and so on.

Rebecca Manley Pippert and Ravi Zacharias, Stay Salt: The World Has Changed: Our Message Must Not, The Good Book Company, 2020.

People or Programs?

I remember being with a Christian student on a beach during an evangelism training week. Bob and I met several religious skeptics and began talking about all sorts of things. Eventually the conversation got around to Christianity, and it was a lively and invigorating discussion. We even exchanged addresses before leaving.  I was feeling very good about the conversation, but Bob seemed very  quiet. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I thought it was an absolute failure.

There are four major points to the gospel and you only brought in two of them, and they weren’t even in the right order!” I said, “What were the names of the three people we met this afternoon?” “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “What in the world difference does that make? There were two females and one male. Or was it the other way around?” I stared at him in disbelief and sadness. Here was a young man who genuinely loved God.

He was exceedingly religious and sincere. I doubt that he ever missed his daily devotions. And yet he had missed the entire point. He was sure his agenda, his four points, were the supreme value. Yet his program was so rigid that real live human beings could not penetrate it. We must beware of this kind of pharisaism, for it is so frequently the disease of the devoted. This student was so busy rehearsing his four points of salvation that he forgot that he was speaking to the very people Christ had come to save. We must never forget that to be a follower of Jesus is to be dominated by love.

We may not be well versed in Scripture or have a seminary background; we may be timid and unsure of ourselves; but we have arms and hearts that were meant to be used. We must ask ourselves, Do I treat people as royalty walking the earth, including even my parents, my spouse, my roommate, the student on the floor that I can’t stand? Do I  believe that by merely seeing me God would break into a run and embrace me? Does my life reflect only religious activity, or does it bear the mark of profound love? When our lives are characterized by the love of Christ, we can begin to interest people in the gospel.

Taken from Out of the Saltshaker & Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. ©1999 by Rebecca Manley Pippert.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com“People or Programs?

Reaching the Unchurched

Here is my grid for how I think of what to say when given the platform by a friend out of trust – a friend who is not following Jesus:

  1. I want to honor the friendship by doing exactly what he’s asked me to do.  Not more or less.  I take as much license as I feel free to take, within the boundaries of the invitation.
  2. I want to leave the time with my friendship strengthened, not weakened.
  3. I want to honor God by not saying anything too edgy or controversial just for the sake of being edgy and controversial.
  4. I want to say something about Jesus. Not preach the full gospel. But just say something that will cause the people there to pause and think “Hmmm? I haven’t heard it said that way before. Maybe there’s something about Jesus I’ve missed or haven’t thought of.”
  5. I want to admit my Christian religious heritage, but not feel bad about poking fun of it a bit – in a way that this audience would understand. To use that in building a bridge. Not trash it, but just poke fun as an insider would of his own people or his own family.

Carl Medeiras, 42 Seconds, NavPress.

Sharing Through Showing

Because I was raised in England, drinking tea is a central part of my cultural identity! Whatever the situation—a celebration, a welcome, a crisis, an afternoon break—the response of a good Brit is to put the kettle on and brew a pot of tea for everyone in the room to share. Coming to the United States was quite a shock, mainly because everyone drank coffee and seemed ignorant of the vital role of tea…So I took a new approach. I brought an electric kettle and some tea into the office and simply made my own cup of tea.

One of my colleagues was standing nearby and asked what I was doing. When I explained that I was making a cup of tea, she replied, “That looks nice—could you make me one?” As I did, I showed her the importance of boiling the water and allowing the tea to brew and explained why milk works better than cream. So she went off to her desk with her cup of tea…The next day she saw me and declared that she’d really enjoyed her tea, and could I show her again how I made it just right, which of course I gladly did…

A couple of days later I was walking down the corridor and passed one of my other colleagues, who was carrying what looked like a cup of tea. “That looks nice—do you drink tea?” “Not until yesterday, but I saw Su drinking tea, so I asked her to make me a cup as well…Over the next few months the number of tea drinkers slowly went up, the supplies of tea in the staff room increased, and the coffeepot looked lonelier and lonelier. Tea drinking had become the dominant source of refreshment, and the shift had come about through a process of discipleship by imitation.

Alex Absalom & Bobby Harrington, Discipleship that Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us Grow, Zondervan.

The Unfulfilled Atheist

Some years ago, I was approached by a young man in our church who described himself as an “unfulfilled atheist.” He wanted to know why he should consider Christianity. I responded to him by asking him if he could name any of history’s atheists who had done a lot of good for their world. Unable to answer me, I gently dove in. I pointed him to Peter Claver at Columbia, who cared for slaves and built leprosariums.

I talked of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle, the small community of men and women most responsible for leading the charge to dismantle the slave trade. We dialogued about William Booth and his care for the poor, and then about George Muller, one of the leaders of England’s nineteenth-century orphan care movement. I reminded him that the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century that gained rights for African Americans like me was led by a courageous cohort of Christ followers.”

Brian Loritts, Saving the Saved: How Jesus Saves Us from Try-Harder Christianity into Performance-Free Love, Zondervan.

We’ve Added Color!

I was taking a tour of the Church of Scotland’s beautiful Glasgow Cathedral, which is technically the High Kirk of Glasgow. It is estimated that over 50,000 university students live within walking distance of this extraordinary building. The congregation of the church itself is down to a remnant of less than two hundred people. So I purposely asked the docent leading the tour, “If this building still houses an active congregation, what is being done to reach these 50,000 students with the good news of Jesus?” Her response was stunning.

“The people we have who are active in this church are mostly old. And as you may well know,” she said, “young people these days are not that interested in religion. But we’re trying and we’re making adjustments. For example, the Church of Scotland has historically used black or dark vestments for our clergy. But recently, to be more relevant, we’ve added color!” I was so stunned I could barely contain myself.

Sam Metcalf, Beyond the Local Church: How Apostolic Movements Can Change the World, InterVarsity Press. 

Wise as Serpents

In his excellent Apprentice Series books on Discipleship, author Jame Bryan Smith details a conversation he once had with Dallas Willard:

Dallas Willard once quoted this verse [Mt 10:16, “be as wise as serpents, and innocent as doves”] and then asked me, “What is the ‘wisdom of the serpent’?”  I had actually never thought about it ….“Well, have you ever seen a snake chase someone?”  I answered no.  He said, “That is because the wisdom of the serpent is to wait until someone comes to them.”

Of course, we are not trying to kill or bite anyone, which is why Jesus ads being harmless as doves.  Doves are about as harmless as you can get.  They are even symbols of peace.  When we combine the wisdom of the serpent and gentleness of the dove, we have found the right approach to evangelism. 

Frank Laubach waited nearly a year before speaking to the people he had come to evangelize in the Philippines.  He simply did his work faithfully and kept his mind on things above.  In time the Muslim leaders told the people, “Go spend time with that man.  He knows God.”  He waited and was gentle.  He also respected the people and cared for them by teaching them how to read.  Laubach was a man of hope, and from that hope sprang faith and love.

Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also illustrations on the Missional ChurchMissions

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Evangelism. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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