The “church” has its own share of four-lettered words besides “hell”. “Stewardship” is one of those four-letter words that make the faithful cringe whenever it is mentioned . . . no one wants to hear about money or things financial in the “church”. Another four-letter word that the faithful of the “church” cringe at is “evangelism”. Evangelism has long held a position of disdain within the “church” thanks to nightmarish images of people going door-to-door with Bible tracts sharing the so-called “good news” . . . or people on street corners waving Bible tracts as they spout out the “good news” to all those who pass by. With this image burned into the mind as the act of evangelism, it has become a four-letter word avoided at all costs by the faithful.
And, that is a shame. That is a shame because really neither of those words are burdens placed upon the faithful . . . they are “gifts” . . . “blessings” . . . when they are embraced for what they are. “Stewardship” in its simplest form is the act of caring for that which we have been given in life . . . how are you taking care of your “gifts” and “blessings”? “Evangelism” is the sharing of the “good news” . . . the “gospel” . . . with others. It is the sharing of the faith journey . . . it is telling your story of faith. That is it. In these forms neither of these words are that difficult to live up to in their expectations.
And, this is good!
This is good because our reading this morning has to do with that four-letter word that begins with an “e”—“evangelism”. The Apostle Paul is sharing with the congregation of faithful in Corinth the expectations placed upon him as an apostle of Christ. Central to that expectation as an apostle is the duty to go forth and share the “gospel”. “Gospel” simply means “the good news”. That is the charge placed upon the apostle . . . and, surprisingly, placed upon all the faithful. All the faithful are called upon to be evangelists who share the “gospel” or “good news”.
Yuck, you say. Especially if you are using that version of the four-letter word that involves going door-to-door with Bible tracts . . . been there, done that, and promised yourselves you would never do it again. And, I can’t blame you because that is not evangelism . . . that is an assault. Even the Apostle Paul understood this.
Early in his ministry the apostle went out to share the “good news” with those he was familiar with . . . people just like him. He began his ministry by going to the synagogues in the communities he was visiting. The result? He was thrown out. He was beaten. He was threatened with death. This “evangelism” thing was pretty rough . . . it was going to get the apostle killed. Yet, we hold the Apostle Paul up as one of the great evangelists of the “church”. How could this be?
Well, Paul changed his style of evangelism . . . changed the way that he shared the “good news” . . . he became what I would call a “chameleon”. A chameleon is a lizard-like creature that has the ability to change colors to blend into the environment it happens to be in. For the chameleon this a natural defense that keeps it alive. Paul developed the ability to “fit in” the lives of those he was sharing the “good news” with . . . he was able to blend into the environment of those he was evangelizing.
Paul states: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like those under the law, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
“I have become all things to all . . .”
The truth is that Paul did not “become all things to all.” No, that is impossible. What he did was to become more open and accepting of others for who they were and where they were at. This was a tough lesson for the early church to learn. It was a lesson that took generations of evangelists in the “church” to learn . . . late into the 19th and early 20th century. Evangelism, as Paul learned and later the “church”, is not converting people into a particular culture or lifestyle.
For example, when evangelists were sent to another country or culture the first thing that they did was to build a school . . . dress everyone up in clothes from their culture . . . and, teach them a new language. American evangelism created schools, dressed everyone up in “American” clothes, and taught them to speak our language. It was difficult to determine whether the goal was to convert them to the faith or to being Americans. Evangelism in this style was a failure . . . it didn’t work. The Apostle Paul learned this the hard way. This method of “evangelism” did more harm than good as it attempted to wipe out whole cultures and ways of life. It is no wonder that these evangelists were greeted with hostility . . . the Apostle Paul could have told them that.
Somewhere a switched must have been flipped . . .somehow someone must of realized that this was the wrong way to go about sharing the “good news” . . . the wrong way to evangelize. Instead it was decided to meet the people where they are. Evangelists were then taught to speak the language of the people they were sharing the “good news” with . . . to acclimate themselves to the culture of the people . . . to live among them as one of them . . . to become a chameleon. It was to accept the people for who they were created to be. Amazingly, the “good news” spread like fire when it was shared in this way. Just look at the results Paul had once he figured it out.
In listening to Paul’s words this morning it almost sounds deceptive . . . sneaky . . . and, dishonest. Like the apostle is attempting to trick the people into believing. Yet, that was not Paul’s intention. His intention was to accept the people for who they were . . . to accept their culture for what it was . . . and, to meet them where they were. Paul wanted to get to know the people for who God created them to be because it was there that the “good news” would be sown. Paul listened. In listening . . . really listening . . . he became one of them as he strived to live among them as one of them.
Though the words of Paul were powerful in telling his story, the more powerful story was the one he told through his “actions” . . . through his willingness to live among the people . . . to accept their culture . . . to accept them. To accept them just as they were, just as God accepted them. His goal was not to change the people or their culture, but to change their hearts into a relationship with God.
So it is for us . . . we are called to this simple form of “evangelism” . . . an “evangelism” of the chameleon. We are not to assault others with the “good news” of Jesus Christ . . . not to beat people with the Bible and tracts. No, we are to enter into their lives in such a way that we accept them for who they are, understand their way of living . . . their culture, and to live among them. We are not to convert them into our way of living, but to assist them into their own way of living in relationship with God. That is what God did for us and that is what we should do for others.
As a “church” when we use the phrase that “all are welcome”, we have to use it in such a way that it conveys that they are “welcome” just the way that they are. We do not want them to get the idea that they are only “welcome” when they change themselves to look just like us . . . no, that is not welcoming . . . that is blackmail. As a “church” we are to be like chameleons when it comes to the faith . . . we are to be adaptable to the environment and the people who grace this space we call “church” . . . we are to accept them as God accepts us . . . they are one of us as we are one of them . . . we are all the children of God. Amen.