Easter Frustrations

At the top of my list of frustrations is the Evangelical push to shape all of church life into some form of man-centered entertainment. I am already seeing it in the mail box and social media ads. Sadly, the week that should be one of the most sober, joyful and sacred is ramping up to reflect some of the worst priorities in pop culture. Many churches are trying win the advertising and entertainment war, and trading their birthright for a pot of stew- Easter attendance.

Pastors, please remember that offering entertainment and self-help is not your calling. Having record attendance is not your calling. Please take advantage of the opportunity of having additional visitors on Sunday to preach the risen Christ. And remember, if you do it like the apostles, some will be convicted, some may get saved, and some may want to throw you in jail.

Here is an inspired reminder of your calling from 2 Timothy 4:1-5

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." (ESV)

Jesus, Friend of Sinners

I was recently invited to give a devotional at a pastor's meeting where we discussing outreach and the importance of loving our neighbors.  The general text of my talk is below:

Luke 5:27-32

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (ESV Bible Translation)

In this passage, we see that Jesus has rescued Levi… one of the worst kinds of men, he was a tax collector. He was most likely a Jewish man, probably from the tribe of the priests. He should have been receiving tithes to fund worship in the house of God, instead he is a traitor… taking taxes to give to the Romans.  And most tax collectors also committed extortion.

But Levi has come to follow Jesus.  And he will become one of the most of the most influential men in the history of the church. He is the apostle Matthew. We still read his gospel.  This is what Jesus Christ does, he takes the people that we look down on, people that are hopelessly corrupt and despised… and He saves them and gives them a great calling. He makes them sons and servants of God. This should give us hope. God might even use someone like you!

After Levi comes to follow Jesus, he is so overjoyed with his new relationship with Christ that he throws a party. He wants all of his friends to meet this Rabbi that is different than any other rabbi… Let me say this, the only way the people in our churches will ever do anything like this, is if they are so amazed and thrilled with Jesus Christ that he is their treasure.

So, Jesus is eating and drinking with tax collectors, and “Sinners." And the Pharisees protest, they ask the question in v. 30, “Why are you doing this?”  Jesus is so close, and so friendly, with these awful people, there can only be one reason.  He must be supporting them in their sin.

Jesus answers with his own mission statement in v. 32. He is like a doctor that came to help the sick. He didn’t come to help healthy people, but the lost and broken.

I would like to suggest that the Pharisees don’t really have a problem with WHAT Jesus is doing. The idea of telling these dirty sinners that they need to repent is probably OK with them. If he stood on the street and yelled at them, they would probably stand and cheer. No, Their problem is with HOW he is doing it.  How is Jesus calling them to repentance? By eating and drinking with them. He has become friends with them, and through friendship calling them back to fellowship with God. His actions are a living parable of the message of the gospel. God makes his enemies to become his friends.

This doesn’t fit very nicely into our box does it!  In many places in the church people live at the far ends of the spectrum.

Some embrace the lost and “sinners” by becoming friends with them. They want to love and support them, but they don’t offer them any medicine.  In fact, they think that if you suggest that people are spiritually “sick”, then you must be judgmental.

On the other end there are Christians that want to call people to repentance, but they do it from a safe distance. They want to do it the way we are fighting terrorists, with drones. They do it by tract bombing, or doing “outreach” twice a year. They want to do it from a place of moral superiority. They are concerned that getting too close to lost people might get them dirty or damage their reputation.  Though I have probably been guilty of both extremes, I think this second one is far more common among serious christians.

But Jesus does something different, he is able to receive and love people without endorsing or participating in their vices and sins. And he is able to call them to repentance, without alienating them or withdrawing from their company.

Brothers and sisters, this is our great salvation and our great example. And we will never be able to do this if we think we are the healthy and righteous ones. We will only be able to do this when we see that we are the sinners he came to call. When we see ourselves like Levi, completely beyond hope. But thrilled that we have a place at the table- that we have been loved and received by Grace.

I previously published this message at my blog at MattTroupe.net

Photo used courtesy of the University of Washington. 

9 Principles For Making Friendships As Means To Share The Gospel


Last week I preached at Redeemer Church in Modesto. You can listen to the message here. 

I have listed the main points with a little description below.

9 Principles For Making Friendships As Means To Share The Gospel 

Friendships are a key element to the spread of the gospel in the New Testament.  This was true for Jesus (Luke 5:27-32) and Paul (I Thess. 1:5, 2:1-8), as well as others. Building relationships in our current context can be difficult.  We face more cultural disintegration and social distrust than ever before.  Many Americans don’t know the people in their community, and they don’t want to know them. It’s too scary.  The following suggestions are offered to help you in overcoming obstacles and building trust.

Please note, this NOT a simple recipe for success. These are just some principles from scripture, tools to help you love people.  And these are certainly other ways to do this. But here is some good news: These things are completely within your reach. You don’t need any special training or a degree.  If you are a Christian, you can do this!

1.    Have no agenda but love. 

This may seem counter-intuitive.  But people are very perceptive. They know when they are a just a “project.” Years ago a pastor friend of mine developed an acquaintance with a Jewish Rabbi. Their friendship blossomed in many ways, and they often discussed the OT together. At one point the Rabbi asked my friend, “Did you only become my friend because you wanted me to become a Christian?”  This was a sensitive question and my friend answered with skill and wisdom: “I would want to be your friend even if you never became a Christian.” This should be our approach. We love people because they are valuable and made in the image of God. Of course we want them to hear the gospel and come to know Christ.  The agenda of love includes this, but it is much bigger

2.    Look for people that God is preparing. 

Throughout the New Testament there is a theology of the “open door.” For example in Col. 4:3-4 Paul says, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” This means that God is at work in people’s lives long before we arrive. We should be sensitive to this and look for people who display openness to spiritual things.   Too often we are trying to pick fruit that is not ripe. James McDonald calls this “green apple evangelism.” We should look for ripe apples. One way to tell if a door is open is that people are willing to listen and talk about Christ. Doors often open during crisis. This means we don’t have to rush a friendship or force a conversation prematurely

3.    Look for natural opportunities

Our society is full of social distrust. We are easily annoyed and suspicious of people that “aren’t supposed” to be talking to us. Just think of the guy pushing samples at the mall, or the salesman that walks up to you while you are at the park with your family.  However, this distrust often disappears when we are in natural situations such as our kid’s soccer game, the gym, work, etc.  When we connect with people in these situations, their cultural defenses are often down and people are willing to talk. They might be open to build a friendship that they wouldn’t consider in other circumstances.

4.    Serve people.

We should be doing this anyway. This is our identity as Christians, we are servants. We are last. We follow the one who is the “king of slaves.”  He came “not to be served but to serve and give his life” a ransom for many.  When you truly love people you help them, you meet their needs.  And we should not only serve the people around us, we should serve alongside them!  This also means allowing them to serve you when you are in need. This is just part of being a decent human being! But even more, it is a great opportunity to display God’s work in us.

5.    Look for repeat exposures

Most likely there are people in your life that you will see again and again. Those are the people you should befriend. Work on developing trust and depth where possible. 

I have a friend that used to be a missionary in Bagdad. Once I asked her, “How do you share the gospel over there (in such a hostile place)?”  She answered, “The same way you should be doing it, we go to the same grocer every day, we go to the same shops and build trust with people and then look for opportunities to share Christ.” I was convicted at the simplicity of the suggestion.  Be deliberate and be focused. The apostle Paul operated this way.  He would go to the same marketplace every day. He would go to the same synagogue week after week.

In many places in scripture, sharing the gospel is compared to the work of a farmer. This job includes planting, watering, tending, and then reaping. Many people who talk about evangelism only talk about reaping. But in reality, most of the work that farmers do is NOT reaping. Harvest is a couple of weeks at the end of the season. You should work on planting, watering, plowing in your friendships.

If you are going to survive in this kind of endeavor, you will need to take the long view. Pray for reaping, but don’t worry about it, and don't rush it. Take your time, pray and trust God.

6.    Eat with people

This suggestion is so simple it may seem like a shock. Be like Jesus! He ate with all kinds of people. You are going to eat anyway. And so are they. Look for opportunities to share a meal. Invite people into your home and into your life to get to know them.  This can be a very easy way to learn more about someone’s life and story. My wife and I have even done this when homeless people ask for food. If I have time I will tell them I will be happy to buy them a meal if they will eat it with us so we can talk. This pretty quickly weeds out the scammers vs. those truly in need. It also provides a chance to do something more important than throwing money at a problem.

7.    Ask Questions and listen!

This is very much like Jesus! The book “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman shows the way that Jesus used questions in his ministry.  He was always asking questions! Scholars estimate that he asked hundreds of questions. One author says the number is “307.” The occasions where Jesus is interacting without the use of questions is certainly the exception.

When we ask questions several important things can happen, IF we ask sincerely, and IF we care enough to listen to the answer. First, it shows a degree of humility. It says “I care about you.” Second, it helps you to understand the person. And if you work at this, you will find that people are truly interesting! Third, The right kinds of questions can be disarming. Even in conflict questions can help to lower a person’s sense of threat.  Finally, good questions can help people come to grips with what they already believe. In my experience, the right question can bring someone to wrestle with their own beliefs, perhaps for the first time. I have found this true in casual settings as well as “formal” events like street evangelism. 

8.    Look for Common Ground

We all have common experiences, common spaces, and common interests. This is one of the best ways to connect.  People are often willing to open up based on their hobbies, their reading interests, place of birth, favorite cuisine, their sports team, etc. 

One of the greatest areas of common ground is found in our weaknesses and struggles.  We are all sinners.  When Christians paint themselves as “having it all together,” it is not only a lie, it destroys a sense of common ground.  All of us have had times where we can’t pay the bills or face an untimely car problem.  So, if you find out that a neighbor is struggling with their teenagers or marriage, one of the best things you can do is talk about your own struggles in similar areas.  This may lead to a very concrete way to talk about a very abstract topic like grace or redemption.

9.    Pray

This is not an afterthought. This is one of the most important things, and we should do it at the beginning, middle and end of the process. Why? Because God is the one who changes hearts.