Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Reaching Out

We have now arrived at our fourth value as a church - Reaching Out. Reaching out is about how we connect our world with the life changing message of Jesus. I have found a simple model based on Acts 1.2: “..... Of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach”. In other words it's about doing something and then saying something. Speaking that goes hand in hand with our actions. I also believe in reaching up and reaching in!

Reaching up is about helping people connect with Jesus through prayer and worship, corporately as well as personally, Matt 6.6-12, Eph 5.18-21. These times are where we reach up to God for grace, inspiration and guidance while offering praise and thanksgiving for His continued faithfulness. It is about our devotion to Him. James calls it drawing close to God, James 4.8. Such encounters can bring about repentance and change in us that help us be more effective in ministry. Like James teaches, we take the initiative.

Reaching in is about how we connect with each other in fellowship. This is more than just being committed to meetings. It includes all the opportunities we get to inspire one another to live life better and to stand with each other through life’s challenges, growing in our faith. We cheer each other on. Sometimes we do the difficult job of confronting another person, helping them to see what they are missing. It's about bringing everyone along on the journey and vision God has called us to. And taking my inspiration from James again, it has the power to “save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins”, James 5.19-20.

But let’s get back to our main focus – reaching out. We’re using Jesus’ model of actions and words. When it comes to action I encourage people to step out in acts of service, acts of mercy and acts of power. (I've written in details about all these in previous blogs). Each action can have an impact. Two simple acts of service in the New Testament times were providing hospitality and washing feet. They became an important part of the criteria for determining if a widow should be financially supported by the church, 1Tim 5.10. Paul was looking for something that impacted the community. The great thing about an act of service is that anybody can do it. You just need to be willing to serve. And often this opens the door to speak.

In the same text Paul speaks of “relieving the afflicted”. These are acts of mercy. They require having a big heart. Bigger than the concerns and personal needs we may be responsible for. The world is full of pain and people in pain. The cross shows us a God who is not afraid to get involved and take on our pain. He suffered. He knows. He understands. And we need to do the same.

I remember sitting in Calcutta in one of the children’s homes begun by Mother Teresa. I was surrounded by a group of five year old children – about thirty. As a father of six children I was used to having kids climb all over me. This was a great moment. These children took such pleasure in the fact that a visitor would spend time with them; for they were all abandoned by their parents. I was moved. I am filled with admiration for those who give their lives to help these innocent children. Mother Teresa had a voice that was listened to around the world because of her continual acts of mercy to these abandoned children.

If acts of mercy requires a bigger heart then acts of power requires a different level of faith. Here we tap in to the gifts of the Spirit. It often means stepping out of our comfort zone, daring to heal or work a miracle. But again think of how people spoke when Jesus did such things. The word most often used is “astonished”; gob-smacked to use a colloquial British expression. And it opened them up to hear what He had to say.

When it comes to speaking I encourage people to talk about their personal story of becoming a Christian. Each of us has a testimony that someone will relate to. Value it and practice sharing it. For our actions make way for our words. Peter brings these two ideas together in 1Pet 3.15-16 (ESV), “But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame”.

Clearly Peter expects that living as a Christian is going to provoke people to ask ‘why’. Our values run counter to popular culture, so we stand out. It may be that we are noticed because, unlike other work mates, we don’t swear or we do a full day’s work without skiving or we are honest in our dealings with customers. These things get noticed and they open the door to speak. Add to this the possibility of speaking prophetically like Jesus did on many occasions and we have a powerful means of touching people’s hearts.

Reaching out requires allowing others into your world. Let me give you some tips that will help you be more affective. Prepare to be challenged!

1. Don't be too busy. We are busy people. Our lives are often full – too full. We run from one thing to the next. Some years ago I worked for a Management Training Company. We had lots of pressures. It was the mid nineties when most companies were suffering from the removal of an entire layer of management in order to create ‘leaner and meaner’ organisations. Research showed that the average manager was now responsible for 40% more work than his contemporary ten years previous. My solution was to take a half our lunch break and press on.

One particular lunch hour I sat with a colleague. At the half hour point I got up to get on with my work. He looked at me in astonishment. “Where are you going?” he asked. Somewhat surprised I said, “Back to work”. “Sit down Peter”, he said. He then proceeded to give me a history lesson. “Years ago Unions were formed to stop managers oppressing workers with unreasonable demands. One of the many things they fought for was a one hour lunch break. Why do you want to oppress yourself? Enjoy the break. Let’s sit and talk. The work will be there when you go back.” He was right. I sat down. We talked and over several lunch breaks we became great friends and eventually I got the opportunity to share my faith.

Here’s my point. Take time to relate to people. Don’t allow the clock to constantly dictate your schedule. Block out times of doing nothing and then you’ll have space for God encounters. De-clutter your diary in a way you would de-clutter your house. Throw stuff away that is no longer used or useful. Don’t constantly mortgage your future by always being busy. The Good Samaritan had to completely change his schedule for the day to help a beaten Jew. It cost him time and money. He made time in his world to reach out and Jesus said this is what it means to love our neighbour.

2. Avoid cliques. This is where we get to know others but over time we become somewhat exclusive. It’s difficult for others to break in. There is no sense of “You’re welcome to join us”. No effort is made to introduce the new person or make them feel welcome. Rather we make a bee line for our favourite group of people. Fellowship is good. Closeness is good. Friendship is good. But all these things can become self serving when we exclude others. Even the disciples were prone to this. John confessed to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your Name and we forbade him because he does not follow us”, Luke 9.49-50. Notice their thinking, “He’s not part of our group.” Jesus is clear. “Do not forbid him....”

Reaching out to others means letting them into your world. It’s making the effort to connect with them. This is the heart of the gospel. God became flesh and dwelt among us. He entered our world, our culture, our mess. And He invites us to do them same.

3. Take the initiative. Be the one to make the first move. Introduce yourself to those who are new to church. Introduce them to those you know. Maybe invite them back for a meal. Remember those simple acts of service, hospitality and washing feet. Translate that into your context. Those who take initiative are also modelling something to others.

I’ve met people who say they are open but what they really mean is, “I’m open to talk if you talk to me”. The openness I’m speaking of takes the first step. It doesn’t wait. Like Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4, He struck up the conversation – much to her astonishment; for He was breaking with a well established tradition that Jews and Samaritans don’t converse – much less those of different genders. Reaching out means we take the first steps.

4. Minister and move on. Reaching out to others requires us to spend time with them, to serve them, to get to know them. But we should be careful to discern when we or they should move on. We are here to make disciples of Jesus – not us. The whole point of reaching out is to connect people to Jesus in a way that equips them to reach out to others too.

Jesus was compelled to reach out to others. After a successful period of preaching in Galilee, Jesus withdrew to pray. Peter and the others went looking for Him. “When they found Him they said to Him, ‘Everyone is looking for You’. But He said to them, ‘Let us go into the next towns that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’” Mark 1.37-38. Jesus ministered and then moved on. Getting this right isn’t easy. Perhaps that is why Mark is careful to tell us that Jesus withdrew to a solitary place to pray, Mark 1.35. He heard from Heaven. Staying would have been good for the region but leaving was better for those who had never heard.

5. Don’t make excuses. The biggest excuse I often hear is “I don’t know enough; I haven’t been to Bible College”. I’m amazed at times how much trust Jesus placed in people who were newly saved to reach out to others. He didn’t wait long. The man delivered from a legion of demons wanted to follow Jesus after he was healed but Jesus wouldn’t let him. “Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you”, Mark 5.19-20. He took his story to the entire region of Decapolis (literally Ten Towns) and “all marvelled”.

This man had no degree in theology, no experiences like the twelve yet Jesus commissioned him to simply tell his story and to begin with his friends; those who knew him. The impact was astonishing. What excuse are you making for playing it safe? Don’t remain in your comfort zone when it comes to reaching out. Remember, the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with an argument. This man had a story. It was his. It was personal and he shared it at every opportunity. Start to believe that the one who lives in you is greater than any personal sense of inadequacy you have. Then be amazed at how God will take you beyond yourself to reach a lost world.