The Billy Graham Crusades were a big deal when we were kids. The whole family would gather around the black & white RCA and watch the program from Invocation to Alter Call. I can still remember the soothing baritone of George Beverly Shea belting out the classic song, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.” “What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.”
It’s almost as if that song is speaking directly to the recurring phenomenon found in the Gospel of Mark known as the `messianic secret.’ Jesus does his best to keep his messiahship low profile until his death and resurrection could correct all the misunderstandings about who and what the Messiah was going to be and fulfill all prophecy.
From the very first chapter, Jesus silences the demons he casts out “because they knew him,” scripture says. [Mk 1:34]
Then he sternly charges a leper he heals to `say nothing to anyone,” about it on the way to the priests. But the grateful `former’ leper goes around telling everyone he meets all about it. [Mk 1:40-45]
A short time later, when things first starting heating up in his ministry, Jesus tries to take a little time out, lay low for a while, sort of take a bit of sabbatical in Tyre; but is quickly discovered there and subsequently begged by a Gentile woman to cast a demon from her daughter. [Mk 7:24-30]
After that he decides he might as well go back to work in Galilee. There, when a deaf-mute man is brought to him, Jesus tries to perform his healing in private, away from the prying eyes of the crowd. And then afterwards strictly orders the man and his friends not to say anything about it. But, again, these people disobey and go around telling everybody they run into about it. [Mk 7:31-37
There was just no keeping secret the things God was doing in Christ. For the more Jesus does God’s work the more urgently – zealously scripture says – people tell the story.
Of course, God’s people seem to be a whole lot better at following that order today. Out of all the commands he gave us (love our enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive without ceasing, go and make disciples of all the nations), keeping Christ a secret seems to be the one that comes most naturally to us.
Apparently, we finally have a command from Jesus that we can actually follow. To counter the old song: `It is a secret what God can do. What God has done for some, God will be hard pressed to do for others.’
Because we’ve become so good at keeping the secret.*
Before the 1950’s churches were built on the theory that `if you build it, they will come’. But we now live in what’s called the `post-constantinian’ era; when governments no longer give preference to Christian teachings.
Which is probably a good thing, as religious pluralism is more broadly tolerated and accepted, and less inclined to be coopted by political expediency.
However, this is also the `post-modern’ era, which is characterized by an attitude of skepticism, cynicism and suspicion; whereby individuals tend to reject universal ideologies, meta-narratives, and cultural value systems in favor of self-referentiality, subjectivism and moral relativism.
Which may not be such a good thing for the Judeo-Christian tradition. With the increasing secularization of the culture comes an increased rejection and ridicule of our faith and those who practice it. And we’ve all heard the cultural message loud and clear.
The firestorm of the Gospel has hit a firewall of resistance.
So people are still going to church, but they gather in dwindling numbers. And if God is still working in their lives (which no doubt he is) they have learned not to be very noisy about it.
We now go to church on Sunday morning with something akin to that Las Vegas mentality, “What happens in church, stays in church.”
Now, lest you think I’m just pointing a finger at the laity, let’s be clear that clergy have become pretty good at only preaching to the choir, too.
William Willimon tells of how several years ago, plans were being made to hold a Billy Graham Crusade in Fargo, North Dakota, one of the few great bastions of Protestantism left in America. Methodist, Presbyterians, and Lutherans abound in this part of the country.
It is one of the last bastions of ecclesiology where the church is still at the center of social life for a majority of people. Church attendance is high, youth groups are growing, and most everyone professes to be Christian.
But when news of the Crusade hit town, many of the local clergy banded together to try to keep the event from taking place. Holding a crusade in their town might imply that there was a spiritual problem in Fargo that local churches weren’t addressing.
The event planners, on the other hand, intended for the crusade to do what it always does, to proclaim Jesus Christ to people who are eager to hear the good news.
In the end the Crusade did take place, and as a special concession to local concerns, Billy Graham affirmed that there was much good work being done by local congregations and ministers. He also encouraged people who were moved by his message to find a local church where they could practice their faith. Even though his proclamation was outside the church walls, Billy Graham proved to be a partner in the Gospel with those who did their work primarily within the established church.*
Evangelism, the “E” word, has become a loaded term for us mainline Protestants. It carries so much baggage with it. It conjures up of people in dark suits canvassing neighborhoods, putting pamphlets in people’s mailboxes; of sweaty and tearful maudlin preachers slamming people with guilt-trips and monetary escape hatches to heaven; or of pushy acquaintances who demand, “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”, without really giving a hoot about us personally.
I remember several years ago, when Bethany Presbyterian Church, in Wichita, reluctantly closed her doors after years of struggle.
My good friend and colleague, the venerable Rev. Dr. George Boone was presiding over the closing ceremonies. I got there just before the service began; the sanctuary was filled with people, so I sat with other latecomers in a folding chair against the back wall.
The gentleman sitting next to me introduced himself as Deacon Williams, member of a local Evangelical association. A very amiable fellow. Struck up a conversation with me; first by talking about the sad affair at hand.
But then, as he eyed me over once or twice, he apparently made some kind of private assessment and reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a tract having something to do with the imminent need for my ultimate salvation. And so began his well-worn routine. Told me he had personally `saved’ 319 souls; and was obviously looking to make it an even number.
I politely took the pamphlet from Deacon Williams, glanced at it, a little irritated, frankly, at his presumption, and that he expected me to divide my attention between it and the invocation.
Then, as we stood up for the first hymn, Deacon Williams, undaunted, pulled out a personal calling card with an invitation for a follow up visit from him; at which point, I leaned over to tell him, as diplomatically as possible, that I was grateful for his interest, but I was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Thank you very much.
Deacon Williams redoubled his efforts.
Maybe the good Deacon recognized that we Presbyterian types are not all that good at evangelizing. Maybe, as we sat there together at yet another Presbyterian church closing its doors, Deacon Williams was (albeit perhaps unwittingly) offering Pastor Oak a valuable lesson. One – as I discovered – which requires a good bit of humility to hear and receive.
As someone observed (I’m sure with us mainliners in mind): “The church today is raising a whole generation of mules. They know how to sweat and to work hard, but they don’t know how to reproduce themselves.”
We can also be quite stubborn when challenged to move in a new direction.
So, let’s just take a moment to unpack the word evangelism from all the baggage it tends to carry. Let’s `reframe’ that much maligned word. At its root, the Greek evangelion (euangelion) precisely means ‘good news’. `Evangelism,’ then, simply means `sharing good news’. And an `evangelist,’ therefore, is someone who shares that good news; a `Good News Person,’ as it were.
An evangelist is simply someone who has experienced the power of God in Christ in a very personal way in their own life, and whose heart has been set on fire to share that wonderful news with others: to offer hope to those lost in a sea of hopelessness; to share the possibility of new life to those held captive by despair. At the heart of that evangelist is an urgent sense of compassion which grows out of the very character of God and which motivates us to also reach out to others.
That is to say, the urgency of the Holy Spirit convicts and compels us—the message of Jesus Christ is not to be hoarded. It was the worst kept secret in town during Jesus’ ministry and it should be the same today.
The fact is, history has proven, and studies have shown, that the primary way by which Christianity has spread – and by which individual churches grow – is simply and purely by word of mouth: through heartfelt proclamation by individuals who are moved to share their faith story with others. And not primarily by ordained clergy, whose efforts at witnessing most people view as simply part of their job. But rather by everyday folks, sharing God’s love in everyday ways; through enthusiastic witnessing, or quiet moments of loving action, or gentle words of encouragement.
There are as many modes of evangelism as there are contexts of human relating.
- S. Lewis once said, “As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colors, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”[i]
When God works in our lives as to move our hearts to share our faith, we should not put up a firewall of resistance within ourselves. Surely, that grieves the Holy Spirit.
Sharing the joy of our salvation with others is a big part of what increases Christ’s joy within us, and fulfills his joy toward us. So don’t squelch it! Be courageous. Be bold.
A woman once criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism as he attempted to win people to his Lord. Moody replied, “I agree with you. I don’t really like the way I do it either. Tell me,” he said, “How do you do it?” To which the woman indignantly replied, “Well I don’t do it.”
Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
You don’t have to be practiced or perfect. Just be yourself.
And you don’t have to canvas the neighborhood knocking on doors. It’s been my experience that, if you are open to opportunities to share your faith, God will provide those opportunities to do so.
So offer your testimony to God in prayer. You might be amazed at the life-changing response you get.
Over the course of his lifetime, Billy Graham preached to live audiences nearing 215 million people in over 185 countries and territories. An estimated 3.2 million people accepted Christ as their savior at Graham’s crusades.[ii] Not bad for a self-professed country preacher.
He once charged his listeners with these words:
“We are the Bibles the world is reading;
We are the creeds the world is needing;
We are the sermons the world is heeding.”[iii]
Friends, we are more than recipients of God’s grace. We are also messengers of it. So find your own unique way to share the good news of God’s love with others. And when you do, you will find that the joy, the peace and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be magnified in your life.
(*Grateful acknowledgement to Will Willimon for much inspiration, a bit of attitude and some content.)
[i] Lewis, C. S., In C. S. Lewis’ last interview by Sherwood E. Wirt at Cambridge, England, May 1963.
[ii] Boffey, Matthew, “In Loving Honor: 12 Quotes on Evangelism from Billy Graham,” LogosTalk blog.