Evangelize with Integrity
“Evangelize with Integrity”
A Sermon on Luke 15:1-10
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
September 15, 2019 – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
I wonder if any of you have heard this good, traditional interpretation of our story today: We are the lost sheep or the lost coin. We’ve wandered off, and are therefore deeply grateful that God the Shepherd and God the Housewife have searched the hills and swept the floors to find us. We can take comfort in the fact that we, as individuals, matter this much to God. We can be comforted that God loves us enough to find us no matter how far we stray. How much more so, then, should we as the church seek with God to find the lost, help them repent, and bring them back into the fold. That’s pretty much the only interpretation I’ve ever heard of these two parables, and they are very true: God loves each of you for who you are and would go to the ends of the earth to find you, even to death on a cross. That’s good news for us to spread.
That was almost my sermon this week.
But then I found this image that’s on the front of your bulletin today, and it made me look at these two parables from a different angle. Not better, just different – all good stories have layers of meaning. And today, friends, I wonder how we might be a better church if we look at ourselves not as the lost one, but the 99 already in the fold. And past that, I wonder how that will impact the way we do our least favorite church activity: evangelism.
You see, I look at this image and I remember stories that I hear retired pastors tell. From what I hear, in the 1950s and 60s, even until the 70s and 80s, American Christianity went through a period where we opened the doors and the sheep poured in. We built big buildings with impressive entries, and a pastor – usually man in his 40s or 50s, preferably with a wife and 2.5 kids – would fling the doors open and people just showed up – evangelism was simple as that. And thanks to the Baby Boom, the flock grew to bursting. There were so many lambs that we started sending them out of the sanctuary to save space. And just missing one little coin wouldn’t have been that big a deal – thanks to the GI Bill and some other factors, the economy grew and people gave generously. “Housewife” was a common profession, so there was a surplus of volunteers to sweep and teach and cook and whatever else was needed at church. I’m told in the days before air conditioning that people would spend evenings on the front porch, so the pastor simply had to walk down the street on a weeknight or weekend to briefly visit everyone in the community. Some larger congregations even bought their pastor a nice car so that he could drive from home to home, providing pastoral care while also displaying the upstanding reputation of the church.
Occasionally, of course, one little sheep might have gotten lost or left out. But with so many coming in and out, most of us didn’t notice. And if we did, we had to be realistic that, even in our Golden Age, no congregation could do everything – serving the 99 was good enough, someone else could take care of that little “one” who had wandered off – the one with awkward questions, or the one who was too political, or the one who just wouldn’t repent of their sins, or the one who just made us all look bad. Had I been a pastor back then, I would have been content to focus on the 99 – no church can be all things to all people.
But times change, as they always do. Life had never been like that before, and it hasn’t been like it since. The sheep stopped showing up quite as often – they were so busy with so much. And we’ve had a few recessions in the last few decades – the coins have gotten more scarce. The Baby Boom has stopped booming, so our nurseries are a little less full. Greater opportunities for women in the workplace meant that our teams of housewife-volunteers no longer exist. People moved inside their homes in the evening thanks to television and air conditioning and the internet and overtime, so that kind of easy visitation is simply impossible for pastors these days. Friends, none of these changes in our world were bad – I’d argue they’re all good (except maybe recessions).
But they’ve been rough on the church since we so loved just flinging the doors open and watching the flock flow in. We really miss those days. If you’ll let me be blunt, many in our churches are actively grieving those days, and our grief makes us unrealistically hope that someday it will be that easy again to grow a church. And so in the meantime, as the crowds on Sunday morning got smaller and smaller, we got scared and huddled more tightly together. We imagined that Jesus was out there finding more sheep for us. We imagined that if everyone else would simply repent, they’d join our flock and we’d be booming again. We forgot that proclaiming the good news meant searching out for the lost sheep and coins among us – and creating a church where they’d be included.
That one little sheep was still out there. But that sheep isn’t lost and lonely anymore, because the image reversed. Instead of that sheep being all alone, we’ve found ourselves in a world where the big flock is on the outside, and only a few stray into the church.
Today, over half of adults in their 30s who grew up in church have dropped out. Only about 1/3 of Americans of any age attend church with any regularly. We know this. What we can’t seem to figure out is why. But there are people who study these things, like Pew Research[i] and Barna Group[ii], and they tell us these are some of the top reasons:
They have experienced too much hypocrisy from church members.
They are turned off by the public moral failures of church leaders, like financial and physical abuse.
Legitimate doubt and questions are often discouraged.
They go to church and learn a lot about our preferences but not much about God.
They’ve never felt welcome, or have been asked to leave.
They think that God is missing in church.
They simply don’t believe in God.
Obviously, I believe in God. But the rest of those – the hypocrisy, the corruption, the exclusivity, the focus on anything but the Gospel – I think that the church universal deserves every one of those complaints. Not necessarily each of us individually – but we’ve all been pretty silent when our brothers and sisters of the faith did those things. We have, as a whole, committed those sins in our history. And with all that, no wonder people find it hard to believe in God.
I want you to notice that in Jesus’ parable, the sheep and the coin don’t wander off of their own accord. The Shepherd and the Woman lose them. These sheep who are not in our fold, who are all outside of our doors – we lost them. We didn’t mean to. Most of us weren’t malicious about it. In fact, a lot of us suffer from the reputations of other churches when we’ve done well. But the fact of the matter is we got real comfortable being a pillar of society, and we lost sight of what we’re supposed to do. We forgot that we follow a Shepherd who doesn’t hang out in the middle of the flock, but seeks the ones that have been lost.
We were so content with how things were that we lost our nerve. We allowed people to wander away from the church all alone because they didn’t quite fit, or they were seeking something a little different than we were at the time. We thought that the spiritual needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, but we didn’t realize until too late that we’ve become the few. And even though we know that was wrong, we think the kind of evangelism where we build and it they will come still works. It doesn’t.
We worry about the size of our church. I worry about it every day, both at Trinity and the worldwide church. We wonder what we should do to reverse the trends.
Beloved, we have to get out of our comfortable sheep pens and seek the lost. We follow the shepherd out into the hills. Evangelism is much more active and risky these days. We have to evangelize with integrity and honesty. And that starts with approaching the sheep who have found flocks elsewhere and be honest about our history. We enjoyed much of it, but we also, unintentionally, hurt people in the process. We excluded people. We lost them, even the ones who came to us for a home. To evangelize with integrity means owning up to that past.
Evangelism sometimes means apologizing to people who were rejected from the church because they had doubts, or because they liked Jesus but not the way our hymns sound, or because they were in a different political party, or because their lifestyle wasn’t like ours. We can’t pretend that the church doesn’t have the history we have. We have to evangelize with honesty.
We have to evangelize without words. One of the best ways we can witness to our faith is to live it. Some of the top reasons people don’t go to church anymore is because they grew up with Christians who were hypocrites or with pastors who were more sinful than they were righteous. We should live in such a way that people say “Oh, that’s what Christians are like now? If that’s what church looks like now, I’m interested.” We have to evangelize without words.
We have to evangelize through relationships. Almost no one is going to accept an invitation to church from someone they don’t know. Would you? I wouldn’t. That means we have to share our faith with people already in our network of relationships. It can be as simple as letting folks know that our faith grounds us, gives us perspective and purpose, and motivates us to serve others. But we can no longer pretend that faith is private – it’s personal, but it’s not something we get to keep to ourselves and away from our closest friends. We have to evangelize through relationships.
And we have to evangelize through invitation. We’re great at being a welcoming church, but welcoming isn’t enough. We have to actively invite people into faith. Simply opening the doors isn’t enough. We have several events that thrive off of that model, but that can’t be our only way. Being invitational means we get out into the world, into our relationships, and actively invite people. Flinging open the doors doesn’t work anymore for the most part. We have to evangelize not with welcome, but with invitation.
Evangelism is not the Presbyterian Church’s best skill. We think it’s something that weird, street corner preachers do. And our history let us ignore evangelism for a couple of generations, so we’ve forgotten how to do it. We’ve lost a lot of sheep. I don’t know that we’ll get them all back, either. But our job is to follow our shepherd out into the hills to find them, and then all get together and celebrate when we do. We can evangelize with integrity, and we should. Jesus teaches us to go out and find what we’ve lost. It’s hard work. Thanks be to God we have each other and can do it together. Amen.