One in Twenty-Five

By Chuck Griffin

As we come out of this pandemic, the church where I serve as pastor, Holston View United Methodist in Weber City, Va., is in a time of discernment. As part of that, we are going to spend some time discussing and then, I hope, practicing evangelism.    

That’s caused me to think about basic evangelism principles I have learned through the years. If you’ve been a Christian for any significant time, I’m confident someone has shared with you the general mandate for all Christians: We are to bring others to a belief in Christ.

This act is rooted most strongly in Jesus’ words recorded at the end of the gospel of Matthew.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus said.

Knowing we’re supposed to evangelize and actually evangelizing are two different things, however. The idea is intriguing, but its execution can be intimidating, particularly if we begin to imagine the hostile responses we might receive.

I struggled with this until I was in seminary, when I was blessed with a very effective professor of evangelism, Dr. Robert G. Tuttle Jr. A couple of his key ideas really helped me.

The first principle helps us to remember that evangelizing is not manipulative. It is compassionate.

“I do not love in order to evangelize. I evangelize because I love,” Tuttle would say.

If we’re struggling with evangelism, we may also be struggling with our relationship with God. Growing in love for God and our neighbors by praying, worshiping, reading the Bible and being in fellowship with those in our community is essential to effective evangelism.

The second principle helps us to deal with what is basically a fear of failure. It gets us to stop expecting every encounter with a non-Christian to result in that person falling to his or her knees, calling on Christ for salvation.

Tuttle called this principle “1 in 25,” which comes from a jailhouse ministry experience he had as a young pastor. After he had witnessed to inmates one day, one of them declared his desire to follow Christ.

Tuttle said he went back the next day, obviously quite proud of himself. The inmate told him this: “Tuttle, I lay awake all last night, thinking. Suddenly it occurred to me that it takes an average of 25 different witnesses before any real encounter with God takes place. Just because you were number 25, you think you did it all, and you stink.”

When you tell someone about Christ, you may be witness number 3, or number 7, or number 22. What’s important is that you move that person forward in his or her understanding of Jesus Christ.

These two principles don’t deal with every aspect of evangelism, of course. There are entire books written on how to find common ground with people so we can talk about Christ in a natural way. Most of these books focus on the need to listen before we speak.

I pray, however, that Tuttle’s two principles will help relieve some of the fears you may experience as you share the good news about the love of Jesus Christ.

Lord, As we go about fulfilling the most basic duty you have given us, give us a sense of peace, knowing you arrived on the scene ahead of us, preparing the way. Amen.

Eyes Open

A detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

By Chuck Griffin

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Lottery jackpot billboards aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having rejected Lazarus directly. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “I saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and often the problem was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Lord, make us alert. Show us the broken people in this world and how we can play some small part in undoing their suffering. Amen.

Faith in Jesus

Romans 9:6-18 (NRSV)

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” As it is written,

“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

God has mercy. God has compassion.

God has called all of us to himself. That is mercy.

Some of us have believed the Lord. We live in the promises that God has for those who have faith. We live like Abraham, and like Rebecca. This life of having faith is how we receive God’s compassion.

When we refuse the mercy of God, then we do not receive his compassion. We harden our hearts when we refuse God’s mercy. It behooves us to believe in Jesus Christ so we can not only know mercy, but so we may know and receive compassion from God.

Lord, sometimes we hear people say that you are mean. Yet, because we believe in Jesus, we know that you have mercy and compassion for us. May our lives be filled with your compassion as our faith in Jesus grows deeper and stronger. We lift people to you who have refused your mercy. Use our lives to show your mercy to this world. May our friends and family accept your promises in Jesus Christ. It is in the name of Jesus that we pray, amen.

Here’s a Tip

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 John 3:18 (NLT): Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.

In these devotionals, I spend a lot of time talking about big concepts: God, eternity, salvation and such. But big concepts should naturally impact small behaviors. Christians, we need to remember how our little behaviors can impact others in a very negative way.

My youngest child, who is 21, recently gave me some good examples. She’s taken a job working in a restaurant, and sometimes she waits tables.

She’s old enough to know that people don’t always leave tips, and that they are not obligated to do so. She has been a little surprised, however, at how some Christians go about not tipping.

They begin by preaching at her, usually by way of pamphlets or cards designed to help Christians feel they have discharged their obligation to evangelize. Most of these little publications are reasonably well-designed, tying the Christian message of salvation to the gift of the tip. But too often they are devoid of money—enough so that employees make running jokes about receiving them.

She brought the worst one home to me the other day. Designed to look like a “Thank You” card, inside it begins, “Thank you for your friendly service. In addition to your monetary tip, let me tell you about … .” It goes on to offer salvation under the headings, “Your Greatest Debt Paid,” “A New Life Offered” and “Taking the First Step.”

On the back of the pamphlet, there’s a tip chart, and under that, there’s a way for the customer to check a box and fill in a line showing the tip was added to a credit card rather than left on the table. This customer actually went so far as to check the box, and then entered ∅, the mathematical symbol for an empty set.

I guess we can assume he’s a good enough mathematician to calculate percentages, even without the tip chart. I say “he” because my daughter confirmed this pamphlet was on a table used by a group of men. And yes, like a lot of waiters and waitresses, she said it’s not hard to figure out who the “churchy” people are.

Christians, don’t do that kind of stuff. Those little thoughtless acts can seriously impact the way the lost perceive Christ and his church. I’m just glad that this particular customer left the empty pamphlet for a minister’s daughter, who has heard the gospel repeatedly.

If you are one of these pamphlet-wielding non-tippers, think about taking an evangelism course. It also wouldn’t hurt to develop a little empathy for people working on the bottom economic rungs, particularly right now when they take so many risks to earn so little.

Seeing as how I’ve gone to preachin’, here’s the exhortation: If you’re going to use those little cards and pamphlets, put a 20 percent tip inside. Your generosity might actually cause your table staff to read what you’ve left.

Lord, forgive us when we fail to remember others are watching, and that their relationship with you might be impacted by what they see. Amen.