A married couple got into a fight. They got so fed up with each other that they each decided to give the other the silent treatment. The husband refused to talk to the wife. The wife refused to talk to the husband. A week into the silent treatment, the man realized that he needed his wife’s help. In order to catch a flight to Chicago for a business meeting, he had to get up at 5 a.m. He wanted his wife to be sure that he got up on time. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence, he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5 a.m.” He gave the paper to his wife. The next morning the husband woke up. His wife was already out of bed and gone. It was 9 a.m. He had missed his flight. Furious, the husband was about to storm off and give his wife a piece of his mind. Then he noticed a piece of paper. It was sitting on his nightstand. It was written by his wife. Her note read: “It’s 5 a.m. Wake up.”
Sometimes spoken words are irreplaceable aren’t they? There are some things that just aren’t going to happen unless someone speaks words.
One of the oldest accounts of Christian evangelism focuses on the importance of spoken words. Paul’s first epistle to the church in the city of Thessalonica tells us a great deal about evangelism. As we’ve seen, not only is 1 Thessalonians an account of early evangelism—perhaps the earliest in the Bible. It is an account of effective evangelism. Luke tells us in Acts 17 that a large number of people in Thessalonica become followers of Jesus through the evangelism of Paul, Silas and Timothy. They, in turn, according to 1 Thessalonians, led many others to faith in Jesus. And the spoken word was critical to that effectiveness.
So far in this series we’ve looked at how Paul evangelized pluralists, people who believe in many gods. We’ve also noticed how Paul evangelized monotheists—people who believe in one God. Last Sunday Dr. Evertt Huffard explored Paul’s evangelism of Jews in Thessalonica and drew principles from that evangelism to help us share Jesus with Muslims. Next Sunday Eric Gentry will explore the role of love and service in evangelism. And I’ll finish the series in 3 weeks with a look at the role of prayer and the Holy Spirit in evangelism.
But our focus this morning is on the importance of spoken words: 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thess. 1:5 ESV). I want to highlight two words: “not only.” Paul writes that the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not only” in word.
Paul means that his gospel did come in words. It’s just that it came in other ways as well. But it did come in words. Paul goes on in the second chapter of this letter to emphasize this fact. He mentions in vs. 2 how they “declared” the gospel. He says in vs. 4 that they “spoke” the gospel. He describes the “words” they used in vs. 5. In vs. 9 he reminds the Thessalonians how he “proclaimed” the gospel. In vs. 16 Paul writes of “speaking” the gospel in Thessalonica. When Paul, Silas and Timothy evangelized in Thessalonica, they did so by speaking words.
But in a culture like ours, it is tempting to focus mostly on evangelism ‘not only in word.’ Here’s what I mean. Think of how the gospel came to you. Think of the many ways the gospel got communicated to you. When I think back to the way God used a teenager named Gary Cox and a church of twenty in small town to lead me to Jesus, I can think of many ways the gospel came to me. It came in the form of a plate of spaghetti when Gary invited my brother and me to his house for dinner as part of building a relationship with us. It came in the form of a youth devotional and bonfire which I attended while investigating Christianity. It came in the form of a ride home which Gary often gave me after football practice. The gospel came to me in many forms. And eventually, it also came in words. It came in the words of the sermons preached by Marlon McWilliams. It came in the words of Gary’s testimony to my brother and me. It came in the words of Mark’s Gospel which Gary shared with us.
But today, for many of us, the gospel rarely comes in words. Direct and spoken evangelism in our culture is challenging. Some of us have a tendency to focus on evangelism without words. Religious words can be so hard to use in a culture like ours. So we focus more on evangelism through service and evangelism through compassion and evangelism through invitation.
Some of the latest research on evangelism finds that few Christians are evangelizing with words. 80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith. But 61 percent have not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months. In the past six months, sixty percent of us have not evangelized with words.
Charles Kiser is a former preaching apprentice from Highland. After his apprenticeship, Charles Kiser planted a new church in Dallas. Recently, he evaluated their evangelistic effectiveness as a church. He found that they’ve excelled in loving and welcoming non Christians. But they’ve been very weak at actually leading non Christians to faith in Jesus. As I read his analysis, it occurred to me that where they’ve failed is in this very issue—bringing the gospel with words. They’ve brought the gospel with love and service and hospitality. But they’ve not brought it with words. Fewer and fewer of us are evangelizing with words. We’re just not talking to people directly about Jesus.
Why? Perhaps one reason is we’ve lost confidence in words. It’s hard to imagine an era in which there are more words than this era. For example, just think about all the words on the Internet. According to one study, over 70% of the world-wide email traffic last year was Spam. 70% of the world-wide email traffic was filled with words from businesses we don’t know or people we don’t know about things we don’t care about. In 2011 there were 555 million websites on the Internet—each filled with hundreds of words. Last year there were over 800 million people on Facebook—each writing words about themselves. There were 225 million users of Twitter—each sending out words. Every minute last year 48 hours of video were loaded up to YouTube—videos crammed with words.
The Internet is not the only source of words. Today there are over 13,000 broadcast radio stations in the United States—each streaming songs with words and hosts with words and programs with words. And that doesn’t even count satellite radio. Last year there were more than 1.5 million new book titles and editions published in the United States, each full of words.
And in the midst of all of these words, it’s easy to lose confidence in the power of words. Actions speak louder than words we may feel. What I do for a non Christian is more important than what I say to a non Christian we may feel. I’ve got to walk the walk before I talk the talk we may think. In a culture inundated with words, we may not have much confidence in evangelizing with words.
But notice what Paul says about the words he used to bring the gospel to Thessalonica: 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thess. 1:5 ESV). When Paul says that the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not only in word” he is really saying it came “not in mere words” or “not in normal words” or “not in ordinary words.” The gospel, when it was spoken, came in unique words. They were words, Paul writes,that the Holy Spirit used powerfully to lead the listeners to “full conviction.” That phrase “full conviction” means something like “complete and absolute belief.” The root word uses the image of something filled up entirely—a cup filled entirely with water. Paul says that when the gospel is spoken, those words are used by the Holy Spirit to lead listeners to the point where they are so filled with faith in Jesus there’s no room for anything else. Gospel words spoken are powerful words. They are not just ordinary words. They are not just natural words. They are supernatural. They are extraordinary.
Paul is saying that we when speak the gospel in words, those words have great power. His point is that when the gospel came to Thessalonica, it came in words. It also came in acts of compassion and kindness, which Eric will point us to next Sunday. But it did come in words. And those words, those spoken gospel words, were not ordinary words. Those words had power. They were unlike any other words that fill the Internet or fill the airwaves or fill books today. Those gospel words were used by the Holy Spirit to bring listeners to full faith in Jesus.
When you work up the courage to finally put your faith into words, when you take that step to verbalize something about Jesus to a family member or friend, you can be assured that those words will have power. Though you may speak them with some fear, those words will have power. Words you speak to share the gospel get used by the Holy Spirit in a way that that no other words do. The Spirit uses those words to lead listeners to faith in Jesus Christ.
In his book More Jesus, Less Religion, Steve Arterburn writes about the power of gospel words—even the most obscure gospel words: Some time ago, I read about the work of a Wycliffe Bible translator in a remote village in Papua New Guinea… One of their practices was to spit on the wounds of the sick. Their medicine men were known as the spitters, and they did not want someone like Jesus to take away their status in the village. However, the attitude changed as more of the Bible was translated into the tribe’s dialect. When translators read the passage where Jesus cured a blind man in a most unusual way, the medicine men pricked up their ears. [Jesus] spit on the ground, made a paste of mud, put it on the man’s eyelids, told him to wash it off—and the man was healed. When these tribesmen heard this story in their own language, they saw that Jesus was not against them, but for them. They found one of their own, a Savior who was also a spitter! And they came to the Lord because of this connection. When the gospel gets presented in words, the Holy Spirit can do some creative and unexpected things. The Holy Spirit can even use words like “spit” to create faith. He can utilize the most unusual words to lead people to faith in Christ.
At Highland, here’s how we’re envisioning this. Evangelism takes place through a process of involve, invest, invite and inform. First, notice that evangelism is a process. It’s rarely ever a one-time event. It’s not something that happens quickly. It’s a process.
- First, involve yourself in activities, events and habits which deepen your relationship with Jesus. It’s true that people must be able to see the gospel in you as they hear the gospel from you. It’s true that you need to experience the Good News so you can share the Good News. So, involve yourself in things that deepen your own relationship with Jesus.
- Second, invest in loving relationships with people who may be far from God. Rarely is the gospel received when is shared from a distance. The context of genuine friendship and gracious hospitality provides evangelism the most fertile soil. The goal is to share not only Jesus but your very life as well. Every Christian should do this—not just paid staff. Every Christian needs to invest in loving relationships with non Christians.
- With that foundation in place, invite that new friend to participate with you in things that introduce him/her to Christ and Christianity. This could be an invitation to attend a practical marriage seminar or a thriving small group. This is something every Christian can do.
- Finally, inform your friend about Jesus. Verbalize the good news in ways that are meaningful and relevant. Often, we’ve made two mistakes when it comes to speaking about Jesus. First, we’ve tried to inform without investing. Ideally, speaking comes as part of this larger process. Second, we’ve focused on informing people about everything but Jesus. Don’t merely inform that friend about the church or talk to that friend about baptism. The first step is to inform him/her about Jesus. The gospel is first and foremost an announcement about Jesus. Use spoken words to share Jesus.
But how do we do that last step? How do we inform others about Jesus? Here’s one answer: We AIM to share three kinds of words: ancient words, inquiring words and my words.
- First, we AIM to share Ancient words. “Ancient words” refers to Scripture. The Holy Spirit can use Scripture in powerful ways to open a person’s heart to Jesus. There are many ways to share Scripture with people. I’ll share two ways. #1) You can share books that rely on Scripture and which introduce Christ or Christianity to a non Christian—you’ll find a list of staff-recommended books on my website today (www.chrisaltrock.com). I’d urge you to purchase some of those books and give them away to the non Christians you’re building a relationship with. Ask them to read one and then have a conversation about it. #2) You can share a Christ Verse. You may have heard some Christians speak of a “Life Verse”—a verse of Scripture serves as a statement that guides their life. Similarly, Christians need a Christ Verse—a verse of Scripture which serves as their summary of who Jesus is and why they follow Jesus. You’ll find a list of staff recommended Christ Verses on my website today (www.chrisaltrock.com). Choose one of those Christ Verses, or come up with your own, and look for opportunities to share it with non Christians. Use that verse to help explain to others who Jesus is to you and why you’re a follower of Jesus. Thus, first, we AIM to share Ancient words.
- Second, we AIM to share Inquiring words. In his ministry, Jesus relied on questions. He was always responding to questions with questions of his own. Jesus inquired. Jesus used queries to help people articulate their beliefs and perspectives. We can do the same. The best thing we can do to prepare to share the gospel with people is ask good questions. Ask them what they believe and why they believe it. Use questions to get below the surface and into what they truly and deeply believe in their hearts. Use Inquiring words.
- Finally, we AIM to share My words. “My words” refers to my story, my witness or my testimony. Every Christian has at least two “my words” to tell: a conversion story and a companion story. Look for opportunities to share your conversion story with non Christians. Take time to sketch out on an index card the story of your conversion ahead of time, thinking of what your life was like before Jesus, how you came to faith in and responded to Jesus, and what your life was like after coming to faith in Christ. Every Christian has a conversion story. That’s “my story.” And you can share it with others as a way of sharing the gospel. You can also share your companion story. Your companion story is any current example of how life with Jesus is impacting you right now—how Jesus is affecting your marriage, your work, your school or your goals and dreams. Your conversion story focuses on your past as you came to faith in Jesus. Your companion story focuses on your present as you walk daily with Jesus. And you can share that story as well as a way of sharing the gospel. “My words” refers to both your conversion story and your companion story.
When I was a sophomore in high school, Gary Cox shared all three kinds of words with me. He shared Ancient words. Every few weeks, he’d come by our house and he’d read part of Mark’s Gospel to my brother and to me and we’d talk about it. He also shared Inquiring words. Gary regularly asked us what we believed and why, and what was keeping us from becoming a follower of Jesus. And Jesus shared My words. He told us how Jesus was affecting his life as a high school senior and how he had responded to Jesus through baptism. Gary stumbled and stuttered through those words. He wasn’t polished and was far from perfect. But God used those words to me to faith in Christ. God will do the same for you.
 Statistics from http://royal.pingdom.com/2012/01/17/internet-2011-in-numbers/
 Steve Arterburn and Jack Felton, More Jesus, Less Religion (Sisters, Oregon: Waterbrook Press, 2000), p.116