July 8, 2018
Pastor Jeff Struecker
We heard from the Scripture about somebody who was alienated and separated from Christ and then out of God’s great love, he sent his Son Jesus to reach in and to snatch us back from our sin, and maybe one of the greatest examples of this story that I have ever heard in my life is a woman by the name of Rosaria.
I’m going to tell you her story today. Rosaria was a woman as far away from God as any I’ve ever heard. Both intellectually and morally, this woman was as much of the opposite of a Godly woman pursuing after Christ that you could find. In her own words, this is how she describes herself in a book entitled The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. Rosaria says, “I was a liberal. I was boldly, blatantly lesbian. I was postmodern in the way that I think, and I was also hostile towards men. I was a feminist [these are Rosaria’s own words about herself].”
She was an English professor at the time of the nation’s most powerful and strongest women’s studies program in America, Syracuse University. She was the faculty advisor (these are her own words) for the queer community, the transsexual community, for the homosexual student groups at Syracuse University. She was researching so that she could write a second book. Her second book was supposed to discredit the religious right, and in order to do that, she started to read more, started to understand more.
At the time, this was kind of the height of the Promise Keepers movement, and she was working diligently to discredit what she calls “gender politics” in the Promise Keepers movement. So, she wrote a newspaper article; it showed up in the local newspaper in New York, and this newspaper article was inflammatory. She said in her book, “I had a box of fan mail as a result of this newspaper article, and on the other side of my desk I had a box of hate mail because of what I wrote in this article, but this is who I was. This described me perfectly, this article that I wrote for the local newspaper.”
She said after this article was in print, a letter came across her desk, and she didn’t know what to do with it. In fact, in her words, she said, “The questions in this letter seemed very non-threatening by a guy by the name of Ken. These questions worked into the recesses of my mind, and I didn’t know how to answer the questions.” Ken wrote a letter and asked Rosaria a couple of very non-threatening questions. Ken said, can you tell me how you arrived at these conclusions, and how certain are you that these conclusions are true? How certain are you that the premise for your arguments are correct?
Rosaria said she didn’t know what to do with this letter. In fact, she threw it away and it went to the dumpster. She went back out to the dumpster and dug the letter back out. She couldn’t get this letter out of her mind, and this was very unlike her, but she made the decision to just try to reply to these what appeared to be honest questions, and because they were honest questions, she was going to try to give an honest answer. But the questions unsettled her, and it started what Rosaria described as a multiple-year gospel conversation between her and a local Presbyterian pastor by the name of Ken Smith.
Rosaria said it was over the course of years of regular conversations with this pastor that God did a miracle and miraculously rescued this woman from her sin. These are her own words of what happened as a result of these gospel conversations, this gospel friendship that Pastor Ken Smith started with her. She said, “Pastor Ken shared the Gospel with me over the course of years, over and over again. -not in some used car salesman way, but in an organic, spontaneous and compassionate way. His questions lodged into the crevices of my mind, and in those conversations, I met the most unlikely of all friends. I met the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and he radically totally changed me.”
If you’re new to Calvary Baptist Church, what we’re doing over the next few weeks is we’re just simply laying out for you as followers of Jesus Christ, what does it look like to have these conversations? What does it look like to have an acquaintance who you see at the gym or who works with you, and you want that acquaintance to start to become more than just that, start to become deeper than that? How do you start gospel conversations?
So, today’s sermon is not a “go and do” sermon. Today’s sermon is a “how to”. In fact, the discussion for today is “How to Start a Gospel Conversation”. Let’s say you’ve never done this before in your life, and let’s say you’re freaking out a little bit about this, and you’re not exactly sure how to do this. Well, this sermon today is to figure out how to do this.
Check this out. We’re not asking you to go put a milk crate on the street corner in the Chattahoochee Valley, get a bullhorn and start screaming to people about their sin. Frankly, that telemarketer, used car salesman approached, in Rosaria’s words, that’s probably not going to work with most people. This sermon today, this whole sermon series is designed to help you go one-on-one with maybe 2, perhaps 3 at the most, people in your life and start to move the conversation toward the deep things of God, start to have some gospel conversations, which will eventually become gospel friendships.
Basically, what I’m trying to tell you today, church, is if you have a crazy busy schedule like I do, what we’re asking you to do today is not just to add another thing to your to-do list. That’s not what this is. Having a gospel conversation, it’s not a new task to do; it’s a friendship that you start to develop. And maybe it takes months. Maybe like in Rosaria’s case, it takes years, but perhaps God will bless those friendships, and people will be radically and totally transformed by those friendships.
Now, if you were with us last Sunday, I said that by listening to people and by loving people, we often earn the right to share with them what’s happening in our life, what Jesus Christ has done for us and what he’s doing in us right now. If you missed that, you can go back and watch it online this week, but here’s how to describe this in more detail. What does it look like to really listen? What does it look like to really show the person that we’re talking to that we genuinely care? Today’s sermon is 2 steps.
I. Listen to their story
Now I’ll just tell you what they are right up front. The first step is, you and I are listening to somebody else’s story, and the second step is telling them your story. Now, let’s just be honest. This isn’t that easy. Frankly, if it was easy, most of us would be doing it all of the time, so this isn’t about being a public speaker. This is about you opening your life up, opening your heart up, you opening your home up maybe to somebody who doesn’t know Jesus, and in the process, maybe the Holy Spirit would bless it and those conversations would become gospel friendships, and eventually somebody’s eternity will be impacted by it.
These kinds of conversations are expected. I don’t know if you’re aware that it’s expected of us as followers of Jesus. In fact, in 1st Peter chapter 3, the apostle Peter makes it very clear to us, “This is what you should be doing.” But he also tells us today, “This is how you do it.” So, check this out. 1st Peter chapter 3, starting in verse 13. Listen to what Peter says to us today:
1 Peter 3:13-16
Who then will harm you if you are devoted to what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16 Yet do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame.
In verse 14, Peter’s saying, “Look, if you’ve never done this before, if you’re starting to do this for the first time, it can be intimidating. It can be very scary. The more that you get comfortable sharing your faith, the less intimidating it becomes. It’s natural, it’s okay if it seems really intimidating right out front. Once you do this often, it becomes a lot less intimidating.” Then he tells us, “This is exactly how you share your faith. This is how you listen to somebody else’s story.”
These verses say an awful lot. I don’t have time to go back over everything that the verses are talking about today, but I do want to narrow in on verses 15 and 16 for just a second because they give us some language that describes how we listen at the heart- level, and here’s the kind of language. He says, “If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be ready at any time. Well, that word ready means that it’s always on. It’s always prepared. You don’t ever leave the house without your cell phone. My guess is, if you do leave the house without the cellphone, you turn around and go back and get it. Well, that’s the kind of ready that Peter is talking about. It’s always on me. I’m always prepared. I’m always ready to answer the question.
The phrase “ready at any time” means more than just, “I got it on me like a cell phone.” It means I have been trained. I have been prepared. I know what to say, and I’m ready to say it at any moment. The phrase also means I’m ready to do it under any conditions. If somebody asks me the question, I know how to hear them; I know what to say to them. And this isn’t a presentation that Peter is talking about. It’s a conversation. I know how to start the conversation. That’s really what Peter is challenging us today to do.
But I want you to hear what he says next. He says, if you’re living this out, it’s natural that somebody’s going to ask you some questions. Peter is saying: Let’s imagine that you’re playing a pickup game of basketball with the same guys over and over again for a few weeks, and they start to notice something different about this guy. So, after a few weeks, the guys you’re playing a pickup game of basketball with, 1 or 3 of them start to crack the door open just a little bit about what’s going on in their heart. They start to ask you a couple of questions.
Or ladies, let’s say you’re at the spin class at the gym, and every day after spin class is over with, you’re in the locker room with the same lady who’s on the bike next to you. She starts to crack the door open just a little bit on her soul by asking you a question. Are you ready right now to give an answer to start a gospel conversation? Are you prepared? Do you know how to listen? Do you know what to say next?
By the way, Peter tells us, “If you do this, treat the person you’re talking to with gentleness and with respect.” In the words of Doctors David and Norman Geisler, “This is gospel conversations, not gospel presentations.” This is talking to somebody like they’re created in the image of God and have immense value, and you’re listening to their story in hopes that God will give you the chance to tell them your story, and if you’re going to do this, you have to focus on listening, not on witnessing.”
In other words, this isn’t just a check on the to-do list. This is a friendship that starts to bud, starts to develop. It’s taking the long-term view. Maybe this takes weeks. Maybe it takes months. Maybe it takes years, rather than the short-term view of, I’ve just got to get through these 4 points of a gospel presentation.
So now I want us to look at, what does it look like to really listen well? I’m going to give you 3 things to keep in mind if you’re going to treat somebody with gentleness, if you’re going to treat somebody with respect.
Elements of listening well:
1. Listen to their heart
2. Learn from them
3. Look for a natural bridge
The first thing is, would you listen to their heart? By this I mean, don’t just hear what comes out of their mouth, but hear what’s motivating what’s coming out of their mouth. Listen for the heart behind it. Come on, y’all, I’m sure you would have to admit this is you, because I do this from time to time. When you’re in an argument, when you’re in a discussion and somebody’s talking to you, how many of you are already formulating in your mind how you’re going to respond before the person even finishes their sentence? How many of y’all do that? -because I do that, and if you do that, you’re not really reflecting; you’re not really listening. You’re not really hearing what’s going on in their heart. You may be hearing their words, but you’re not really hearing their heart. And if you’re the kind of person like me, you can sometimes get so wrapped up in winning an argument, you can miss the most important part of the discussion. You can miss what’s happening in their heart, and what we’re trying to do here is to listen to the heart.
So, the way that you do that is think before you speak and reflect on what you’re hearing. In fact, maybe it would be helpful if you are naturally inclined to shoot your mouth off before you really listen, to ask a question to clarify what you’re hearing, like “Hey, did I just hear you correctly? What you just said is this…” This is forcing you to think deeply about what they’re feeling as much as what they’re saying. Don’t just listen to the heart, though. Learn from them.
Would you right down these two words? Learned their passion. Learn their pain. -because here’s the truth: Everyone on the planet worships someone or something, and if you will listen carefully enough, chances are they’re going to tell you who they worship or what they worship, and they’re going to tell you by their passion what they spend their time doing, where their money goes, where their energy goes, what’s got their attention. That’s where their passion is, and whether they used these words or not, wherever their passion is, that’s really what they’re worshipping, and if you’ll listen carefully to their heart, if you will learn from them, chances are they’ll tell you what they’re worshipping, or oftentimes (and I can tell you of 100 hundred cases where I’ve heard this in our city), they’ll tell you about their pain.
They’ll tell you how they used to go to church and then a pastor or somebody in church burned them really bad a long time ago, and they’ve never been back. And since then, they’ve kind of stopped going and stopped believing and checked out of church. I really want to grab people like this and to say, “Listen, all Christians aren’t like this, and all churches aren’t like what you experienced. Give Jesus a second chance. Come check Calvary out or give us a second chance.”
If you’ll listen to somebody, they’ll tell you their hurts or they’ll tell you their heart, and when you’ve heard that, now you can start to look for a natural bridge to talk to them about Jesus. It becomes really easy at this point to talk to them about Jesus. Now is the time where you start to ask the Holy Spirit to give you some help. You start to ask the Holy Spirit to give you the right words, and by the way, we’re not going to tell you what to say today. We’re going to ask you to just have the right attitude and the right heart. Be we willing to listen to the Holy Spirit. He will give you the right words to say at the right time. This is what it looks like to really show gentleness, to really show respect to the person that you’re talking to.
Hey, can I give you a disturbing statistic? This is well-documented. In the last 50 years, more people in America have been trained to give a gospel presentation than ever before in the history of the church in America. -more in the last 50 years than ever in our country’s history. At the exact same time, in the last 50 years, churches and denominations who believe the Bible and who teach that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, all churches and all of the major denominations, they’re losing ground in the area of baptisms.
So, you don’t have to be a PhD researcher to put the math together. Here’s what that statistic is saying: The gospel presentation, used car salesmen approach is not working, so the challenge for us is to stop thinking about it like a presentation and start thinking about it like a conversation that’s going to lead to a friendship, and start taking the long view if the statistics are going to change. By the way, in the last 20 years, I have personally studied and I think I have taught every major approach to sharing your faith that our denomination has created, and it’s no longer about a method. It’s absolutely clear to me it’s not the method that you use; it’s the messenger, you, and the heart behind the messenger that makes a difference.
II. Tell them your story
If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this following 1st Peter’s principles. You’ll have to learn to listen to somebody’s story, to listen well and to hear their heart, and maybe when you do that, you have the privilege of telling them your story. Maybe now you’re at the gym. Maybe now you’re at a group of moms getting together and they’ve started to open up their heart to you, and now you have the privilege of saying to them what Jesus did for you, what he’s still doing in you, what he can do for them. Now may be the perfect time where you’re able to have a conversation, and it’s all about timing. Now may be the opportunity for you to just sit down and open up.
Did you notice this is no longer about getting through a checklist of 4 steps that I’ve got to tell you about in order for you to be a Christian? Now this is no longer about trying to get every word right. Now it’s about trying to connect to somebody heart-to-heart. The book of Proverbs was written thousands of years ago, and it says something about the timing of when you have the privilege, when you’ve earned the right to share something deeply important to you. Here’s what Proverbs 25 verses 11 and 12 says:
A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings. 12 A wise correction to a receptive ear is like a gold ring or an ornament of gold.
Let’s just assume today that these 2 verses can mean many different things. Let’s just assume today that we’re talking about sharing your faith with somebody. This is as lavish, as expensive, as precious as any language that you could use back in Proverbs many years ago. Back in the day, in Proverbs, a woman would put a gold nose ring in. A woman would put gold jewelry on to make herself look beautiful, and she would put these ornaments on her to try to get somebody’s attention.
Proverbs is teaching us that when you’ve listened well, when you’ve really listened for somebody’s heart, when God gives you the right time to say the right words, even a correction which really stings can be beautiful to the person you’re talking to. If they know that you care about them, if they know that you love them, even if it hurts a little bit, a correction when their ear is receptive and the time is right, even that correction can be like a gold nose ring or ornamental jewelry. It can be beautiful in somebody’s sight.
Your mama probably said this to you when you were growing up. You probably heard this repeatedly. It’s 100% true when it comes to sharing your faith. God gave you 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason. We all heard that growing up, and chances are, the next statement you heard was, “Maybe you should do twice as much listening as you do talking instead of using twice as many words for half of the listening.” That’s what Proverbs 25 is telling us. God gave you 2 ears and 1 mouth for reason. Listen to their heart. Hear what’s going on deep inside them. Hope that God gives you the privilege of hearing their hurts or their heart and their pain and their passions. And when he’s done that, now maybe you’ve earned the right to use your mouth and to start to have a gospel conversation with people. Now maybe God will use your story. Like Romans 1:16 says, “The power of the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” and now maybe the dynamite power of God is going to be used because of your words, your story.
Maybe it takes 5 minutes. Maybe it takes 5 months. Maybe it takes 5 years. It usually all comes down to timing and to your heart. Did you know that on average in our country, somebody generally comes to faith in Jesus Christ after hearing the Gospel explained to them (get this) 8 times? So maybe you’re the very first person who’s ever explained Jesus to somebody and they’re not ready. Maybe you’re the third or the fifth or the seventh person and they’ve heard it and they’re processing it, but they’re not ready. Or maybe God uses you as number 8 and you have the privilege of explaining Jesus to them and they’ve heard it enough, they’ve processed it enough, that now they’re ready and now you have the opportunity to invite somebody to share in God’s story like you’ve been changed, you’ve been cleaned up, you’ve been made new in Jesus. Now you have the privilege of telling them, “What God did for me, he can do that for you too.”
So, I’m going to give us now 3 things necessary if you really want to have an honest gospel conversation. Here are the 3 things that you need to have with you at all times:
Things necessary for Gospel conversations:
1. Gospel ears
2. Gospel heart
3. Gospel mouth
If this is going to be honest and if it’s going to come from the heart, the first is, you need to have gospel ears, which means you’re listening to what’s going on deep in the heart of the person you’re talking to. Your trying to hear their doubts. You’re trying to hear where they’re defensive and not really sure that they want to follow Jesus. You’re trying to hear where their desires may not line up. You’re not trying to win an argument. You’re just trying to hear what’s going on, and then from those gospel ears, from listening twice a as much as talking, now you develop a gospel heart. -a heart that is broken and longs for the person you’re talking to, to have what you have.
Listen, you can’t really fool people. They know your heart, and they can tell if you care, and when you get the privilege of sharing with them from your heart, now you have the opportunity to explain to them what Jesus has done in you and what Jesus is doing right now in you. This is the opportunity for you to just simply say, “Here’s what happened when Jesus changed me. Here’s what he’s doing for me right now. He could do the same thing for you, and I am living proof.” But at some point, you have to get the conversation to the Gospel. If you don’t do that, it’s a lot of work and a lot of effort without really getting to the goal. A gospel conversation or gospel friendship is designed so that you can explain to them who Jesus is and what he’s done for you. And by the way, when you get to this point, your Christian testimony is irrefutable.
Here’s what I mean: They can be an absolute atheist and totally disbelieve in God, but what somebody cannot do is look you in the eyes and tell you, you don’t believe in God, and when they hear from your heart, it can start to wear down the defenses, and they will walk away. Maybe they don’t agree with it, but they’ll walk away saying there’s no question that she believes that. There’s no doubt that that man believes what he told me, and then the Holy Spirit might use that sometime late at night to cause them to say, “Maybe Jesus can do for me what they claim he’s done for him for them.”
So, I’m going to go back to Rosaria for just a second. I’m going to cautiously do this. Some of you in this room might want to go to Lifeway and pick this book up, but for others of you, you might not want to read it because Rosaria is going to step on some toes in this room. Rosaria was as far from God as you can get, and she describes throughout this book what it looked like to listen to Christians as an outsider and to hear the callous, hateful or just mean-spirited things that Christians said to her, but if it wasn’t for a guy like Pastor Ken Smith, perhaps she would have never been able to get over those hard, hateful things that she heard.
Eventually, God impacted her with the Gospel (in her words) like a car crash. “I couldn’t walk away from it. It absolutely, radically changed me.” Rosaria became a passionate follower of Jesus. She married a guy who was called to pastor and a plant churches, and one day, she and her husband, Pastor Kent, started to plant a church outside of a college town. So, Rosaria and her husband decided to have college students over to their house to start to engage college students with the Gospel, hoping that she could do with these college students what happened to her when she was a college professor.
Rosaria, in her words, said she made a mistake. She started to invite people from the church to come over to her house at the same time and to have conversations with these college students. She thought it was a good idea. After a period of time, she realized this was a big mistake. You see, (her words) most of the people who came from church came over to her house just to criticize, just to complain, or just to try to change the morality of the people who were going to the college that she was trying to reach.
They didn’t care about their souls. They just cared about the way that they were living. Eventually, Rosaria had to stop having Christians over at her house because they were so poor at listening to the heart and having gospel conversations, they actually did more damage than good. Rosaria describes what it looks like to be a woman trying to follow God and then she describes what she sees in other women around her. Just to be honest with you, ladies, it’s scathing the indictment that Rosaria makes about women who claim to be followers of Jesus when she’s reading the scriptures and she’s seeing the lifestyle of the people around her and she’s saying, “You know what? Maybe sometimes we Christians do more damage than we do good, and it’s because our hearts are in the wrong place, and this is a story that will absolutely compel you. In fact, if I hadn’t just read this, I would have invited Rosaria to be with us today and to tell us from her perspective what it looked like to try to hear about Christianity from callous, hard-hearted Christians who didn’t care about her, just tried to get through a Gospel presentation or just tried to run her down about her lifestyle.
I want you to notice something. At no time today did we tell you what to say in a gospel conversation. That’s not the intent behind the sermon today. Today is designed to tell you how to say it and the heart behind what you’re saying. We believe that when your heart is in the right place, when you’re really honest, when you’re very open, when you’re willing to be vulnerable to the person God has placed on your heart to have a gospel conversation or gospel friendship with, the Holy Spirit is going to give you the right words to say, and those words will be powerful for salvation to some people.
So, I’m going to remind us again. Look, this isn’t a go and do sermon. This is how-to. This isn’t another thing to add to your already busy schedule. This is a lifestyle that causes people to say, “You’re different,” and “I feel like I can say something to you that I don’t think I’ve been able to say to anybody else and ask you questions that I’ve always wanted answers to, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking those questions of anybody else.”
• Today, I trusted in the Gospel of Jesus for the first time.
– I’m not sure who the Holy Spirit wants me to have a Gospel conversation with yet.
+ I will have a heart level conversation with someone this week.
- What is your favorite topic to talk about with a friend?
- In your opinion, what makes someone persuasive in conversation?
- What role does the Holy Spirit have in your friendships?
- Have you learned a Gospel presentation in the past? If so, how often do you share that presentation today?
- On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you sharing your faith with someone right now?
- How do you prevent yourself from becoming “defensive” while having a Gospel conversation?
- Pray to the Holy Spirit to help you look for an opportunity to have a Gospel conversation this week.