SERIES: Christ Is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis
SCRIPTURE: 1 Cor. 9:19-23
Introduction: It is not a matter of significant debate that the church at large is not fulfilling Christ’s commands in the area of either evangelism or discipleship with any great degree of effectiveness. While some Christians are regularly engaged in sharing their faith, many go through the average week, or even month, without a single verbal witness regarding their faith in Christ. All of us acknowledge that witnessing is important; we know that God says that “he who wins souls is wise,”but we just don’t do it.
There are probably a number of factors which contribute to this lethargy we find ourselves in, and I say “we” advisedly, because I am preaching at myself this morning, even more than usual. Lack of concern for the lost is a problem some have, but I find it hard to believe that is true of most people. Fear of how people might react to witnessing is another factor, but we risk negative reactions in many other areas of our lives without being paralyzed by it. Still another problem is ignorance of how to witness, but I doubt seriously that better technique is the panacea we need.
If technique is all we needed, then our personal evangelism problems should have been solved by Here’s Life America. In 1976 our church in Wichita joined with thousands of other churches across our country to present the Gospel to pagan America. In our church alone we had 120 people trained in the latest techniques of personal evangelism, and we donated $10,000 to the expenses of the local campaign. A year later the net results of that 9-month effort were that we had one family attending church as a direct result of Here’s Life, and they were not converted during the campaign, but ratherrededicated their lives to Christ.
There was, perhaps, even a negative result of the campaign in that some people were even more reticent to share their faith afterwards than before because of bad experiences with the confrontational approach used.
Well, what went wrong? It is not my purpose to deliver a critique of Here’s Life this morning. The whole reason the campaign was conceived was that the churches weren’t doing evangelism like they should. But I wonder if there isn’t something deficient in the philosophy underlying Here’s Life and most movements of mass evangelism. It is the philosophy that people can be effectively evangelized while they are still strangers, that impersonal techniques, like cold-turkey phone calls to disinterested parties, are going to bear significant fruit. I don’t believe the results support the expectation.
I am not suggesting that the Holy Spirit cannot use any means He wants, but I am saying that the church should not be borrowing methods from direct mail advertisers who tell us that if you make enough cold-turkey calls, a certain percentage is bound to respond. To summarize my point, impersonal evangelism of strangers by strangers is not cutting the spiritual mustard today.
As part of the solution, I would like to suggest an approach I would call “friendship evangelism,” or as it is sometimes called, “lifestyle evangelism.” Its underlying philosophy is that effective evangelism demands deep involvement in people’s lives. In other words, we must be willing to become friends with people if we want to evangelize them. I believe this approach is biblical. I am not suggesting that this is the only way people are going to come to Christ, but it is one of the most effective ways.
Our Scripture text for today, 1 Cor. 9:19-23, teaches friendship evangelism.
19 “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”
If you have been with us regularly, you are aware that we are in the process of preaching through the NT book of 1 Corinthians. We have come to chapters 8-10, which deal primarily with the right and wrong use of Christian liberty. Paul has made it clear that while he cherished his great freedom in Christ, he was willing to limit that freedom for the sake of a weaker brother, even to the extent of giving up his freedom to eat meat, if meat should cause his brother to stumble.
And then, as if to prove that surrendering his freedom was not just his belief but also his practice, Paul says in the first part of Chapter 9 that though he had every right in the world to be supported financially by the churches, he had given up that right so as not to hinder the spread of the Gospel. He considered his greatest reward to serve without pay.
He is now going to tell us further that his method of ministry, which I have called “friendship evangelism,” also involved surrendering rights and freedoms for the spiritual benefit of others. Paul is about to tell us that he would modify his habits, his preferences, and his entire lifestyle, if any of those things caused someone to be hindered from coming to Christ.
Perhaps the first thing we should observe is that …
Friendship evangelism has at least three proper motives.
These are revealed through the phrase “that I might,” repeated 7 times in these 5 verses. The first motive is …
To bring people to Christ (19-22). In 5 of the 7 times Paul uses the phrase, “that I might,” he is speaking of evangelism in the strict sense of winning converts.
v. 19: “that I might win the more”
v. 20: “that I might win the Jews”
v. 20: “that I might win those under the Law”
v. 21: “that I might win those without Law”
v. 22: “that I might by all means save some”
It is my opinion that in each of these cases Paul is speaking of winning lost people to Christ, which is one of Paul’s primary reasons for living. It is his primary motive for ministry. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, slave and free, religious or pagan, needs to know Jesus Christ as Savior, and his reason for practicing friendship evangelism is to win them.
However, biblical evangelism does not stop when one gets a convert to make a profession of faith. There is also the need …
To help new Christians grow (22). And Paul gives that as a second motive for friendship evangelism. In Verse 22 it says, “To the weak I became weak that I might win the weak.” Now the weak person is not a physical weakling. Nor is he, as some have suggested, one who is weak in his understanding of the Gospel. Rather, he’s the same as the weak person of chapter 8. That is, he is a Christian recently converted out of paganism, and whose conscience bothers him a lot concerning things in the grey area.
Now if the weak person is already a Christian, Paul can’t mean that his motive is to win him to Christ. Rather he must mean that he desires to win him away from legalism to a deeper walk and a happier Christian life. In other words, he wants him to grow and mature. He wants to disciple him.
You know, when the NT counts converts, it is always baptized converts who have joined themselves to a church. Acts 2:41,42 reads, “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Discipleship is part and parcel of evangelism. There is no NT basis for counting the notches on one’s spiritual gun and getting all excited about the number of professions of faith. The very most we can legitimately say when we have received a response from preaching or witnessing is that “X number of individuals professed faith in Christ today;” we have no basis for saying “X number got saved today.”
But winning converts and producing growth in new Christians does not exhaust the motives for friendship evangelism. There is a somewhat selfish and yet proper motive that Paul gives in verse 23. And that is
To reach maturity oneself. (23) “And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” A “fellow-partaker” in Greek was a business partner, one who shared not only in the investment and work, but also in the profits. Paul expects to share in the spiritual profits of his ministry. He expects to participate in the spiritual fall-out of the evangelism he is engaged in.
And isn’t that the way it always happens? When we do personal evangelism, we not only benefit the lost, but we feel better, our whole spiritual life takes a significant turn for the better, the Bible comes alive, our prayers are more effective, and our relationships with other believers are more productive.
So far we have seen three motives for friendship evangelism: winning the lost, discipling new converts, and growing personally. But those motives are to a certain extent true of all kinds of evangelism. What makes friendship evangelism different? I believe it is different in its foundational principles, of which there are three.
Friendship evangelism is based upon three foundational principles.
A genuine love and concern for lost individuals. Note carefully how that was stated. We are not interested in theoretical concern, as evidenced by an occasional prayer for the lost or an occasional Gospel tract placed in a letter. What we need is genuine, heartfelt concern, the kind that causes pain and sorrow when someone fails to respond to the Gospel. Unfortunately, some people can get a lot more upset about a dog being run over by a car than by their neighbor dying and going to hell.
But let’s face it. It is not possible for most of us to have that kind of love and concern for strangers. But as we become involved in the lives of people, that concern has a chance to develop. Further, it’s not really possible to be concerned for the lost as a group but only as individuals. Jesus did not come to seek and to save the lost as a group—He came to seek and save individual lost people.
Do you recall Luke 15 and the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son? That is descriptive of God’s concern for individuals—He leaves the ninety-nine and seeks the one. He leaves the nine and seeks the one. He leaves the one to seek the other one.
While Paul doesn’t directly speak of his love and concern for the lost in this passage, it is obvious that it underlies all that he says. Why else would he be willing to forego his rights as an apostle if he didn’t love the lost with a deep compassion? And he does speak of that love in 1 Thess. 2:7,8: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
And that introduces the second foundational principle of friendship evangelism. Not only must there be a genuine love and concern for lost individuals. There must also be …
A willingness to forego one’s rights for the sake of others. It was two weeks ago when we were studying I Cor. 8 that we observed that Christians must at times limit their liberty for the sake of weaker Christians. But we didn’t at that time mention the fact that there are also times when we should limit our liberty for the sake of unbelievers. Unbelievers are watching us, and they sometimes have very definite ideas of what Christians should or should not do. If we desire to reach these people, sometimes we have to forego our rights and conform to their notions, so long as it doesn’t involve sin.
Limiting one’s liberties doesn’t come naturally, but if one has genuine love and concern for lost individuals, it will be no great drudgery to do so in order to bring them to Christ.
The third foundational principle we want to examine is the principle of …
Flexibility without compromise. If a person is going to practice friendship evangelism, he has to be flexible, willing to get involved in all sorts of situations and lives. He can’t isolate himself from people, from their problems, from their interests, or from their way of life. In fact, it might be good to call this “dirty hands evangelism.” But at the same time, he must be careful not to allow his heart to get dirty. Paul was flexible enough to become friends with Jew or Gentile, slave or free, but he never would compromise truth in the process.
I like the way James 1:26-27 expresses the need for flexible involvement without compromise: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Visiting orphans and widows is illustrative of deep personal involvement, but the need is still there to keep one’s own walk pure.
There are many Christians, ministers and laymen alike, who have through good motives gotten involved deeply in other people’s lives, perhaps in a counseling situation, only to find themselves trapped in a compromising moral situation. Many years ago there was a Free Church missionary to Venezuela who suffered immense hardship to evangelize the people of the Venezuelan interior. He identified completely with the people, fulfilling the Pauline dictum: “To the Venezuelans I became a Venezuelan.” Unfortunately, he found himself in a compromising situation at a weak moment, got involved in immorality, and ruined his ministry.
Satan likes nothing better than to derail God’s servants. And he will sometimes use their very willingness to get involved with people to do that. But if we would do NT evangelism, we must have flexibility without compromise.
Hopefully Mark Shoemaker will be teaching a course on “Friendship Evangelism” in our Sunday School this Fall, and one of the tools he will be using is a Navigator Video Tape Seminar. I’m going to give you a preview from that tape on this topic of flexibility without compromise. Listen to the workbook that goes with the tape:
“Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners. We must accept people as they are. Don’t come across as a reformer. Acceptance does not mean approval. The contrast between your values and theirs will become conspicuous. Be sure this contrast is based on moral and Scriptural matters, not on trivial and optional things. It is our responsibility to adapt to them unless absolute moral issues are involved. Make them feel comfortable around you. Be ‘all things to all men.’
Avoid judging, preaching, condemning or moralizing. A ‘no thank you’ is definitely preferable to ‘I don’t smoke because I’m a Christian and the Bible says….’ Prayer before lunch that embarrasses your guest is not necessarily a good testimony! Demonstrate grace, not legalism. Be sensitive as to how your actions will affect the other person.”
We have so far looked at both the motives and the foundational principles of friendship evangelism. I think it important that we now see how Paul actually practiced it.
Friendship evangelism was practiced by Paul in the following ways:
He became a slave to all men (19) “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.” I believe Paul is here speaking of freedom and slavery in both a literal and a spiritual sense. He was free politically and socially inasmuch as he was a Roman citizen. However, he was willing to identify with the slave class, and, as a result, it was no accident that many, if not most, Christians in the churches Paul founded were of that class.
But taking the freedom here in a spiritual sense, Paul is claiming to be free in Christ, not bound by culture, tradition, and man-made laws. But to win men for Christ, he voluntarily became a slave to all of these things. If this is the primary sense, then verse 19 may serve as an introductory summary to the next 3 examples.
He became a Jew to Jews. (20). “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.”
You, say, “but I thought Paul was a Jew.” Yes, he was a Jew racially, but no longer one spiritually. He was now a Christian. He had graduated from the slavery to dietary and ceremonial restrictions that so encumbered the Jew.
But Paul wanted to win the Jewish people for Christ more than anything in the world. He said in Romans, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” (Romans 10:1) And he also wrote, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (Romans 9:3) To reach them he often put himself back under Jewish traditions. He attended the synagogues on the Sabbath, he respected Jewish scruples, and he even had his colleague Timothy circumcised, though he knew there was no religious benefit in doing so. (See Acts 16:1-3). He considered such things a small price to pay for the prospect of winning some of them to the Lord. It was a way of opening doors.
But there was a point where Paul drew the line, and that was where the Gospel might be compromised. Turn to Gal. 2:1-5. Here Paul refused to accommodate himself to Jewish legalism because he believed that the very Gospel of grace was at stake.
Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. 2 It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. 3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 4 But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. 5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.
A third example of Paul’s friendship evangelism is his willingness …
To become a Gentile to Gentiles. (21). “To those who are without Law, as without Law, though not being without the Law of God but under the Law of Christ, that I might win those who are without Law.” The word “Gentile” isn’t found here in this verse, but that is what Paul means by “those who are without Law.” The Law is the Mosaic Law, which was never given to Gentiles. What Paul is saying is basically that when he was trying to reach Gentiles, he didn’t use the same approach as when he tried to reach Jews. He did not come to Gentiles with all the traditions of the Jews, forcing the Gentiles to adopt Jewish scruples. Instead, he dropped his Jewish lifestyle and adopted theirs. He became their friend; he got involved.
A case in point was when Paul went into Athens to evangelize that city. He didn’t start from a Jewish base but met the Athenians on their own turf. He spoke to them in their own language regarding subjects of interest to them, namely philosophy, and endeavored to use that means to draw their attention to Christ.
It is important to note here again that Paul’s flexibility was without compromise on moral issues. The parenthesis in v. 21 makes it clear that Paul never considered himself really free from God’s moral law. His conduct was not unprincipled. In fact, on occasion Paul could be very stubborn in following courses of action in the teeth of strong opposition. But where no principle was at stake, he was prepared to go to extreme lengths to meet people on their own terms. He would never set aside a truth of the Gospel, but he would gladly restrict his liberty in the Gospel.
In other words, while Paul was willing to act like a Gentile socially, he would never act like one morally. His submission to the Law of Christ prevented him from ever doing that.
The final example of friendship evangelism Paul gives us is that …
He became weak to the weak. (22a) “To the weak I became weak that I might win the weak.” We have already spoken of the weak and Paul’s attitude toward them, so it is not necessary to dwell on the subject now. Suffice it to say that though he was a strong Christian himself, with freedom in the grey areas of Christian conduct, he nevertheless was willing to live like a weak brother if that would help him win the weak brother to a higher level of maturity and understanding. He asks for love from the enlightened for the benefit of the unenlightened. If a person is offended by God’s Word, that is his problem. But if he is offended by our unnecessary behavior or practices—no matter how good and acceptable those may be in themselves—his problem becomes our problem.
Paul summarizes his four examples at the end of verse 22. “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”
The art of friendship evangelism, dirty hands evangelism, is an art that was perfected by the great Englishman, Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was a great talker, but also a great listener, with a supreme ability to relate to all kinds of people. Once a country clergyman complained of the dullness of his people, saying bitterly, “All they talk about is cows.” An old lady listening said, “Dr. Johnson would have learned to talk of cows.” It is said that Johnson would discuss the digestive apparatus of a dog with a country parson, dancing with a dance instructor, farm management with a farmer, law with a lawyer, and diseases with a doctor, always ready to throw himself into the interests of other people.
That’s what Paul means by becoming all things to all men. That’s what friendship evangelism is all about. It is not soft-pedaling the Gospel, but rather gaining a hearing for the Gospel.
One final point should be made:
Friendship evangelism should be practiced by Christians today.
I believe many of us, myself included, need a strong dose of involvement in other peoples’ lives. We need to be flexible; we need to be willing to make friends with people who aren’t exactly like us so that we might win them to Christ.
If we’re rich, we need to learn how to relate to those who are poor, to interact with them without putting class distinctions between us. If we’re well educated, we need to be able to talk to those who aren’t. If we’re white, we need to learn how to relate to racial minorities. And all that is not as hard as you might think. Oh, it takes concern, and it takes time, and it takes sacrifice. But anyone can do it if he really wants to.
I’ll guarantee that it’s the most effective means of evangelism and discipleship there is. As people get to know you and what makes you tick, as they come to see that you really care, they’ll probably end up actually asking you about your faith.
Let me conclude by reading a true testimony from a student who found Christ through Intervarsity. It’s entitled, “Steve Became My Friend.”
“My name is Bill. I’ve been asked to write my experience of coming to our Lord Jesus through a friend. Well, let me start off by explaining some of my past.
My parents are both atheists: My father does not believe in God at all, and my mother agrees. From the time of my birth to the time of my conversion—twenty-one years later—I cannot remember ever reading a Bible or going to church. My father taught me to argue with “church kids.”
One attitude my father strongly instilled in me was distrust of all people: Having friends was a sign of weakness and I was not to be weak. So for twenty-one years I did not make one friend.
Very early in life I began working in theatre and by the time I was in high school I had decided that theatre would be my life’s work. Through writing and other art forms I saw a great deal of beauty in the world; my world of beauty sharply contrasted with my father’s view, which was only ugliness. Slowly I developed a feeling for people by observing them.
My first two years of college were spent at a state university. My freshman year was very lonely. I knew no one; I began spending long hours in the theatre, working or just thinking; I started drinking to ease the loneliness.
My sophomore year looked as bad. But early that fall Hank (a guy from one of my classes) said he wanted me to meet his roommate. “He’s a real fanatic,” Hank said. That night I went to get some notes from him and met his roommate, Steve.
Steve was a Christian. He, Hank, and I talked for a while and then Steve turned to me and asked me what I thought about God. I replied that I did not think about God. “I’m an atheist,” I informed him. Steve’s only reply was, “Oh.” That night I went back to my room with very little thought about the matter.
The next day I was eating breakfast alone (I often ate meals alone) and Steve moved from a table with many people and came and sat with me. He frequently ate with me from then on.
As I look back, I realize that a lot of my time in October was spent with Steve. We often ate meals together and he also invited me to go places with him. I was greatly impressed that someone cared enough to spend time with me.
Steve didn’t speak of God to me during that month; but he cared about me as a friend. I think I knew then that the love was coming from God. Steve’s life was joyful and godly. His friendship meant a lot to me.
Early in November Steve must have known I was ready and one evening he asked me what I thought of Jesus Christ. I told him I thought Jesus was insane or a liar; I wasn’t sure which. Steve’s reply was, “Why?” I spent six hours that night discussing what I believed and how I came to those beliefs. When I went to bed I didn’t sleep because I was rethinking my case. I knew I was wrong, but I had no other argument.
After classes the next day I went back to Steve. For hours I unloaded all of my locked-up feelings while Steve listened. I couldn’t stand myself. I returned to my room really upset.
The following day after classes I picked myself up and went to Steve a third time. We talked more and at last I said that life must be hopeless. But Steve said he didn’t think it was hopeless at all. For the next forty minutes he briefly explained God’s plan for man as recorded in the Old Testament. Then he quickly spent ten minutes on Jesus Christ and his fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. Steve asked if I would pray. I said that I could not believe. But Steve prayed; and during his prayer I felt God’s call to me. I could not hold back or contain myself; I interrupted and asked Steve if I could pray. As I addressed the Lord, words of confession and repentance flowed from my mouth and I gave myself over to our Lord Jesus Christ….
Steve continued to be a good friend and his family became a second family for me—a family where I grew in Christ.…
God has blessed me with a number of good friends, because through his Son, my Lord Jesus, I am free not to be alone again. Jesus has filled my life and he continues to do so.” [i]
Conclusion: I would like to suggest that each of us evaluate our involvement in the lives of non-Christians, whether neighbors, fellow-workers, fellow-students or casual acquaintances. I would like to further suggest that we pick one unbeliever with whom we get our hands dirty.
1 Thess. 2:7-8 sets the tone that should be our goal: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
DATE: June 9, 1985
[i] Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Bible and Life Training Course, Level 1.