Make Disciples – Part 2, Discipling a community

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In Part 1 of “Make Disciples” we focused on the wording of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus told the Eleven that they were to “disciple all the nations.” Working on the premise that the greatest mission success of the 19th Century was the Christianization of the United States, I suggested that discipling the U.S. was a matter of evangelization, resulting in church starting, followed by the formation of Christian ministries and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages, among other things.

Now, let’s think about “discipling the community.” When I served in the Bible belt state of Oklahoma I learned that while Oklahoma was more churched than Washington State, there was still great variation from one community to the next regarding church attendance. In some communities well under 10 percent attended church on a given Sunday, while in others more than 40 percent were in church. In the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), while church attendance is below that of southern states, and the number of churches is lower for the population, there are some exceptions to this. There are communities in the Northwest that are quite Christian and church attendance is high.

So how does a community become more Christian? First, we must understand that it takes generations to disciple a nation or a community. Discipleship implies more than making God’s Word known to a community or a people. It requires that God’s Word penetrate into the distinctive ways of thought, relational networks, and those special ways of doing things that give a community its commonality, coherence, and identity. Discipling a community means that biblical truth and thinking must enter the patterns of thought and life of that community. The way a people think and make decisions, the bonds that hold a community together, don’t change or develop quickly. It is a long process (see Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 50).

Second, some towns are more Christian because exceptional pastors and other godly leaders gave their lives to discipling the community. Spiritual leadership makes a huge difference, especially when a city is blessed with great leaders spanning two or more generations.

Pastors and churches can do several things to disciple their community. First, pray for your community, its leaders, churches, businesses, school and children. Pray for the various groups of people in the community. Prayer might seem obvious, but doing the obvious doesn’t always happen. Most churches devote little time to praying for their community during their public worship services. As one who worships in 40 or more churches each year I can tell you that I seldom hear prayer that lifts up the local community, or any Kingdom or mission concerns.

Second, identify the various networks of people in the community (language and ethnicity, social groupings, occupational groups, sports community, arts community, etc.), pray for them, and explore ways to connect with them. The larger the town the more groupings of people there will be. But even in a small town you will have several different groupings. It could be that your church members are already a part of several different groups.

Third, identify community needs and those who are working/tasked to meet those needs. As you identify needs, explore ways that God might use your church to meet one or more of these needs. Schools and service organizations often welcome churches who offer to help them.

Fourth, build relationships and friendships with community leaders. If you care about your community leaders as individuals, and aren’t seeking to “get something” from them, God can bless these relationships in unexpected ways.

Fifth, focus on children and young people. When discipling a community, do not neglect the young ones. In childhood we develop our sense of right and wrong and personal disciplines. A child can and will learn almost anything, and they can become anything God wants them to become. The older we get the harder it is to change behaviors, values, careers, everything. Decisions we make as adolescents will shape our entire lives. Nothing a church does is more important than what it does to love and reach children for Jesus Christ.

Sixth, orient the ministry of the church to obeying the teaching of Scripture in ways that connect with the needs of your community. Your town is unlike any other town. There is no “model church” doing what your church needs to do because each community is different and the particular composition of the Body of Christ is different for each local church and for the local churches in a particular community.

There is much more that could be said, and examples that could be given, to elaborate and illustrate how to disciple a community. But one final thought might help – learn to both “love” and “like” your church and your town. If we don’t find a way to love and like the people where we serve we will limit our effectiveness. God’s work is all about our relationship with Him and with others. Both must be strong for Him to use us to disciple our town.

Make Disciples – Part 1, Discipling a Nation

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Church historians sometimes call the 19th Century the missionary century. Following William Carey’s publication of An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen in 1792, and his subsequent move to India the following year, hundreds followed Carey in obedience to the missionary call. They travelled to Africa and Asia and South America and to the remote islands of the South Pacific Ocean. Those who survived became legends and heroes of subsequent generations. David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, John Paton and Lottie Moon are among those we revere.

But of all the 19th Century missionary endeavors, none was as successful as the effort to evangelize the young, expanding nation called the United States of America (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 4; also Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 227). Rodney Stark documents how this happened in his excellent book The Churching of America. In summary, the United States was churched, not so much by missionary heroes, as by ordinary believers, some of whom were preachers, who evangelized and planted churches as the nation grew to the west. The most successful of these were the Baptists because they were not stymied by denominational polity or steep educational qualifications.

So what did those 19th Century pioneers do to reach the United States for Christ? Simply put, they discipled the nation. Every church leader knows the Great Commission. Or do they? What comes to mind when you hear the term “Great Commission?” If you’ve studied Matthew’s version you know that the key verb is “make disciples,” and it is an imperative verb, a single word in the original language. The command is to “disciple all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Think about that command – “disciple all the nations.” What does that mean? How do you do it? What does a discipled nation look like? Many have understood the command to mean that we are to make “some” disciples from among all the “people groups” in the world. But is that what it means, or does it mean that we are to do precisely what it says – “disciple all the nations?”

Personally, I have never been convinced that our evangelism and missionary strategies should be fashioned so as to “win at least a few converts” from among all of the many thousands of nations (people groups) in the world, so that each will be represented around God’s throne in glory. Yes, all the peoples of the world will be represented before the throne, and this will be a “great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9). But the Scripture also says of God that “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). That means that God doesn’t want a single individual to perish, not one.

I don’t intend by this to disregard or lessen in any way those who are spending their lives among isolated peoples, in difficult places, sharing Christ and spending their lives so as to see the first converts from among an unreached people. These missionaries are my heroes and should be supported and encouraged in every way. They are doing the incredibly hard work of going from zero believers to one believer, and zero churches to one church. I’m simply saying that in our preaching and strategizing we should strive to share the gospel with every single individual, in every house and hut, on every hill and in every valley, and in each language spoken on the earth. If 90 percent of the people of a nation have heard the gospel, but my loved ones are among the 10 percent who have not heard, that is a personal disaster which would cause me to deeply grieve because the destination of a person without Christ is hell.

I’ll address in a subsequent article how “discipling all the nations” can be applied to a local church or individual, but let’s think first about how the United States became a discipled nation (Note: To say that a nation is discipled is not to say that it will remain discipled. Historically many nations were once more discipled than they are at present, including the United States).

In large measure the first Europeans that moved to the land that became the United States were Christians. They weren’t all Christians, but they certainly weren’t Hindus or Muslims or Zoroastrians. The governing document of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact, stated that they had undertaken “for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith.” Early on, men like John Elliot sought to evangelize Native Americans. The early immigrants were largely a Christian people. I don’t mean by this that they all knew Jesus. I simply mean that our nation was largely settled by a people with a Christian background.

When the First and Second Great Awakenings happened in the 18th and 19th Centuries, many colonists and Americans were spiritually converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Differently than converts in Saudi Arabia or India today, however, these early American converts did not “leave” a religion and join a new religion. In many cases they came to a saving faith in the God they already claimed to confess as God.

As the new nation migrated westward, believers did as well. Along the famed Oregon Trail were Christians like David Lenox, who, finding no church where he settled, started one in his cabin west of present day Portland, OR. Lenox was not a preacher, but a Baptist layman who founded the first Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains on May 25, 1844. Twelve years later there were 26 Baptist churches in Oregon, not because of missionaries sent from the East, but because of laypeople and preachers who started churches wherever they settled.

Evangelizing people and starting churches are the first steps toward discipling a nation. Then, in the United States, schools, and even hospitals, were soon started by Christian settlers. In Portland, OR, Rev. Horace Lyman and Rev. N. Doane were among those who started schools in the early years. A Google search of the first schools in most any town, universities included, will reveal that most of the first schools in the Colonies and in the U.S.A. in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were founded by Christians. The same is true of hospitals, orphanages, anti-slavery organizations, and temperance societies. Thus, I would propose that the United States became a “discipled nation” because churches were founded, and these churches moved out from the church to begin schools and other organizations that benefited the communities and furthered the mission of the churches. Churches penetrated their communities and transformation occurred as a result.

What does this mean for your church and your community? How do you disciple your community? How do you disciple a church or and individual? These are questions we will explore in subsequent articles.

The Praying Pastor

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When the congregation gathers it doesn’t need nor does it expect “cool” and “hip” in the pulpit. What the congregation needs and wants (whether or not they articulate it) is a word addressed to God and a Word from God.

That thought came to me this morning as I was praying and thinking about our churches. I have written about this before, but I am really burdened by the need for more prayer in our church gatherings. The prayers offered are usually quite brief, lacking depth and breadth in terms of Kingdom matters. I realize that sounds judgmental, but please know that I am too often guilty of the same. Too often when I consider myself and my ministry there is more doing than praying, and, even worse, there is doing without praying.

I know the Bible well enough to know that God’s people experience utter disaster unless He shows up and takes action. I believe Paul expressed something similar about himself when he said “I am unspiritual” (NIV) or “I am carnal” (KJV) (Romans 7:14). What did an unspiritual Apostle Paul do? I think he sometimes acted without prayer or made decisions based on experience or human reasoning without seeking God’s mind on matters.

So what do I mean by the congregation needing to hear a word addressed to God? I mean that they need to hear God’s man speaking to God on their behalf, leading them to the Throne, confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, interceding for the lost and the persecuted and the missionaries and the leaders and the servants of God. God’s man pouring his heart out to God as the congregation listens and engages with their hearts. It’s not that others cannot and should not lead in prayer when the congregation gathers, but the pastor must do so. No one prepares and plans for the Sunday meeting like the one who occupies the pulpit.

Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of a special worship gathering involving many pastors. Each pastor was to do only one thing. One would pray, one would read the Scriptures, another would preach, and one would appeal for the offering. Charles Spurgeon was chosen as the one to preach, but as he heard explained how things were going to work, the famed preacher said, “If there is only one thing that I may do tonight, I want to offer the prayer” (Revival Praying, p. 80). Wise man.

We preachers must lead our people in prayer and teach prayer, and we teach prayer by praying with and for our people. We hear a great deal today about great preachers. We need to hear more about preachers who pray and who lead their people to pray for the great concerns of God’s Kingdom.

Without question, pastoring a church is more difficult today than at any time in recent memory. We have churches in the Northwest that are discussing whether to admit into membership, or employ in the church (yes, I’ve had one phone call about this), individuals involved with marijuana in some way. Our churches and church members are dealing with same-sex marriage and transgender issues. We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign with two deeply flawed candidates, and this too is causing discord among Christian leaders and in some churches.

All of that is to say that pastors need prayer, and need to pray, more than ever. If you’re a lay person, please pray for your pastor and be his friend. More than once the encouragement of a layman helped me to do the right thing when I was a pastor. Pastors, more than any other person, earnestly strive to speak the truth in love and dispense grace, while also being faithful to reprove, rebuke and correct us when we go astray. They need our prayers.

If you’re a pastor, do not delegate all of the public praying to others. If the pastor is to lead in only two things, it would be the teaching of the Word of God and prayer. No one is better positioned to know the needs of the church and community than the pastor. And no one cares more, or thinks more deeply about Kingdom matters with each approaching Sunday, than the pastor. As you study to prepare the Sunday sermon, think also about the matters you want to address in prayer that Sunday. Take notes, make a list of those matters with which you want to approach God while worshipping with your people.

One final question – who have you heard that really knows how to pray? I can think of a few, but too few. That bothers me less, however, than wondering if my name would come to anyone’s mind when asked that question.

Lord, have mercy, and teach me to pray.

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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Most Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ do so after 10:00 at night! This important fact was explored by Nik Ripken as a part of his research into the persecuted church. He learned that in many Muslim cultures, particularly in the Arab world, the first meal of the day is around noon and the last meal is late at night. This late meal is the setting in which Muslim men, in particular, are most willing to talk about important things. Because of this, many missionary families adjust their daily schedule to fit the cultural realities of the people they seek to reach for Christ. Parents in Portland, OR don’t take their children to the city park at 2:00 AM, but in some faraway places parents do just that (Ripken, The Insanity of Obedience, 260).

If you haven’t read Ripken’s book, I would recommend it, as well as his previous book The Insanity of God. In addition to serving as an international missionary for over 25 years, Ripken has interviewed hundreds of persecuted Christians in about 60 different countries. What he learned will encourage, challenge, and instruct you. One point of instruction concerns what we might call “the process of conversion.” What process, or journey, does the radically unchurched person travel before coming to faith in Christ? The answer depends on their locale, background, language, and a host of other things. You can easily identify the journey to Christ of a child who grows up attending your church, but what of the radically unchurched person in your town?

Answering this question is vital for the Christian who wants God to use them to lead others to Jesus. Moreover, the answer requires the ongoing pursuit of knowing your community and the various peoples in your community.

I was once the pastor of the “big church” in a small Texas town of 1,700. One family that came to faith in Christ did so after my wife and I got to know them in the hospital. We both had a child in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. This common experience led to talking, praying, and eventually, this family gave their lives to Jesus. Later, the husband said that a church member had invited them to our church a few years prior. The invitation went something like this, “It will help your business if you come to our church.” Yes, that really happened! And what’s more, it was true. It would have helped his plumbing business had he attended our church. But even though he wasn’t yet a Christian, he understood that attending church to build your business didn’t seem right.

Although church attendance might be a business strategy in some places (not in the Northwest!), appealing to a business motivation won’t help you reach the radically unchurched for Jesus Christ. The journey to Christ will likely follow a path that takes into account several factors, including:

1. The rhythms of life. People’s schedules and lifestyle differ depending upon age, ethnicity, education, children in the home, employment, hobbies, health matters, etc.
2. Religious background and beliefs
3. Real and perceived needs
4. Friendships (including family) – who are their closest friends and what do they believe about Christ?
5. Personal sin with which they struggle, or which they simply enjoy

There are other factors you could add to the list. But the main point is this: when a person comes to Christ, they travel along a particular road to do so. The better we know the people of our community, as individuals and as groups, the better we are able to share the real Jesus with them. Remember, many people who reject Jesus don’t reject the true, biblical Jesus. They reject the “people of Jesus,” or they reject some “image” of Jesus that is distorted. Ripken says that many who suffer martyrdom for Jesus are murdered, not because the killers reject their witness for Jesus, but because the martyrs affiliated with a Western person or organization. Often the killers don’t even know the specific message of the gospel, or the claims of Christ. They kill for secondary reasons, which is a real tragedy.

So what about your town? Where do people gather? Where do women or men sit around and discuss important things? How can you discover the particular needs of people in your town? Do you have church attenders who are connected to organizations and groups that will help the church connect to various peoples. Are new homes being built in your area? Are new businesses being started? Do you drive around the town using different routes so that you can discover such things?

I once served in an area where nearly half of the adults were functionally illiterate. Learning this changed how we trained our small group Bible study teachers. It impacted our methods of evangelism. In one church, when discussing how to take the gospel to every home in town, the person who helped plan the strategy was a newspaper delivery person. He knew how to cover the town!

The point is, people are different and communities are different. First Baptist Church of Toledo, WA has 400 people attending on Sunday morning, and the town only has a population 725. The FBC of Toledo, OR isn’t nearly so large, though the town has a population of 3,465. The towns are very different religiously, spiritually, historically and culturally. These differences make for a different kind of ministry. The differences aren’t found simply between communities, but between individuals in each community.

For every person there is a process, a journey, on which they can encounter the real Jesus. Part of the joy of ministry is discovering what process works with each person. When we know this we can help guide their steps so that they will meet the real Jesus and hopefully come to know Him.

Let me end with one caution. Many churches have discontinued evangelistic methods that they perceive are not as effective as they once were. The problem, however, is that they haven’t replaced the old methods with new methods. Don’t throw out the old unless you have a legitimate replacement. Although people come to Christ through different processes, ultimately it is the power of the Gospel, the message of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Second Coming, that is powerful to save a person from sin (Romans 1:16f).

Reviving a Dying Church

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Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.

My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”

We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.

We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.

I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.

Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.

A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.

We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.

Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.

This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.

Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”

Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.

What of Those who will never claim the Prize?

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I’ve been reading through Deuteronomy the last few weeks during my morning devotional time. This amazing book records Moses’ final spoken words to Israel before his death. It is rich with content and contains a powerful message for us today, multiple messages really. But one that has stayed with me for many days is Moses’ plea to God that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 3:23-28 we read that Moses “begged the Lord … please let me cross over and see the beautiful land on the other side of the Jordan…. But the Lord was angry with me … and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘That’s enough! Do not speak to me again about this matter’ … But commission Joshua and encourage and strengthen him, for he will cross over ahead of the people and enable them to inherit this land.”

There is great emotion and sadness in this story. For 40 years Moses had led God’s people. With humility and faithfulness he led them and prayed for them and protected them. But in the end, only two men above the age of 20 when they left Egypt were allowed to enter the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb. All the others died. The wilderness was littered with their corpses for 40 years. Then, when all above age 60 were dead, save Joshua and Caleb, Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land.

A question that came to me is this: What did God do in Israel during those 40 years in the Wilderness? One thing He did was enable those who died to prepare the generation that would conquer and claim the land. Moses and the others fathered children, multiplied their numbers, then raised them, taught them, trained them, made disciples of them. They taught the younger generation to trust God and follow God. Moses taught Joshua leadership skills and built strength into him for the task that was to come. Then, after 40 years of funerals, when the elders were dead, the people were ready to claim God’s promise.

Imagine living your whole life knowing that you will never achieve your dreams. You will never have what God had wanted to give you, if only you had remained faithful to Him. That was the situation that Moses and the elders faced. Their sinfulness and rebellion caused them to miss a tremendous blessing. And when it did, their purpose became that of preparing their children to claim the blessing.

No one knows what tomorrow holds for any of us. But I do know this, if Jesus’ return is delayed for another decade, or century, or millennium, nothing we do is more important than making disciples of the next generation of God’s people. When I think of the lostness of the Northwest, I think of the little ones who don’t have moms and dads teaching them to love Jesus. I think of college students, 625,000 of them in the Northwest, most of whom are giving no thought as to what God wants for their life.

Whatever we are doing, we had best do all we can to teach our children and grandchildren how to walk with God, and we’d best teach the neighbor kids how to walk with God as well. Our schools and universities are mission fields. We may not live to see the next Great Awakening , the Day of the Lord, or the Glorious Day, in which case our greatest work may be the investment we make in those whom God will use on that Day.

As I see it, that was the task of those whom Moses led out of Egypt. That’s what God did through them. They lived and died so that others could conquer.

Last week I read an excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson titled American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis. One thing that Ellis noted was that the remarkable leadership of the Founding Fathers was due in part to “the self-conscious sense that the future was watching,” thus it “elevated the standards and expectations of all concerned. At least in a small way, we are complicitous in their achievement because we were the ultimate audience for their performances” (p. 300f).
As parents, pastors, leaders, it will serve us well to remember that the future, and God, are watching what we do. It is also comforting, in a way, to know that we have a part to play in the great drama of building God’s Kingdom, even if our part is preparing those who themselves will claim the promise.

Evangelism in an Election Year

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President Clinton was impeached when I was a local church pastor. The issues involved matters of morality that required a response from pastors, on occasion, but doing this in a “non-political way” wasn’t always easy. The Sunday following his impeachment was most memorable. I began my message saying that in the past week someone had done something to our country for which I could never forgive them. “The harm to our country was so great it could not be overlooked,” I said. I could see the congregation bracing themselves for what I would say next. They thought, “Oh no, here it comes!” And then, just when they thought I was about to launch into a political rant, I said, “I will never forgive Michael Jordan for retiring from the NBA!” which was the other “big news story” of the week. That statement prompted the biggest outburst of laughter we ever enjoyed together.

All laughter aside, political issues are always difficult for pastors and churches, and perhaps doubly so in an election year. And when politics intersects with biblical teaching, it often requires a response from pastors. But as important as elections are, and they are important, evangelizing the lost is truly vital. And lest you want to evangelize only Democrats, or only Republicans, I want to suggest some guidelines for our conversations with others, particularly with unbelievers.

First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be the supreme message of our lives. When speaking with unbelievers, do not risk offending them and lose any chance of witness by discussing politics. Stick with Jesus as your subject. If we confuse receiving Jesus with adhering to a particular political viewpoint we will destroy our witness to at least half of our neighbors.

Second, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Politics and elections don’t deter or detour Him. There are many biblical examples of God orchestrating the politics exactly the opposite of what believers would have preferred. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were God’s instruments, the Bible says, though they were pagan rulers and wicked men. Contemporary historians say that Chairman Mao Zedong, the atheistic ruler of China for 27 years, who sought to destroy the church, helped to establish the conditions for the explosive church growth that China has experienced in the past 30 years. I read recently that the two countries in which the Church is growing fastest, as a percentage of the population, are Iran and Afghanistan. The article suggested that growth is being accelerated by hardline, Islamic rulers, which are turning people away from Islam and toward the Prince of Peace.

Third, heart transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing we can do for the lost is lead them to Jesus, then teach them to pray and read the Word. If they (or we!) will do these things, the Holy Spirit will transform their (our) minds so that they (we) become more like Jesus. When people come to Jesus their morality and worldview changes. About a year ago one of our Northwest churches led a young couple to Christ who made their living by farming marijuana. The pastor told me that they got very involved in Bible study and were hungry to grow in Christ. By the fall, the couple became convicted that they needed a new line of work. Jesus saved them, forgave them, and He is transforming their hearts and minds. Note that salvation came before transformation.

Fourth, the “world” already regards us politically. The message of the Church to the lost world is too often a political message, and that is a shame. If you ask an unbeliever what a conservative, evangelical Christian is, he will describe them with political language. We have already seen this in the current presidential race as various candidates vie for the “evangelical vote.” It is far better to be known for the ministry we do and the God honoring character we have than the political stand we take, or the candidate we endorse, if we want to have spiritual influence with the lost.

Finally, the true Gospel is cross-cultural and cross-political. It works in every context. The Gospel works in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the United States. It works in free societies and in those ruled by tyrants. The true Gospel can bring conviction of sin to liberals and conservatives, and both need Jesus.

I once had a professor whose father was a pastor. He said that a man once came to his father asking for spiritual counsel. He visited with the man, and then asked, “Aren’t you a member of such-and-such a church? Isn’t so-and-so your pastor?” The man said that yes, he was correct on both matters. My professor’s father then asked, “Why didn’t you go to your pastor for counsel?” And the man said, “If I needed a golfing tip I would speak with my pastor, but I needed to speak with a man of God.” Ouch!

That is the greatest lesson that professor ever taught me and I’ve never forgotten it. Whether you are a pastor or a layman, the people you know will figure you out. In time they will know what is most important to you. Each of us must decide, is it more important to share our political opinion or to share Christ. Don’t be known as a political preacher or political Sunday school teacher. Better to be known as a lover of Jesus and seeker of lost souls.