Does It Matter?

imageA headline in the online edition of Christianity Today last week caught my attention as it declared “Americans Warm Up to Every Religious Group Except Evangelicals”.

Without getting mired into the details of the Pew Research Study upon which the article was based, (If you’re interested, <click here> ) I will just note that it was based upon a recent survey of 4200 Americans as to how favorably they viewed various religious groups: Jews, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Atheists, and Muslims.

The main point emphasized by the article was that every religious group received a notably more favorable rating than it had received in 2014 with one glaring exception – evangelical Christians, who remained steady at 61% favorability.

On the surface, that might not sound so discouraging unless you drill a little deeper into the results. Removing the responses of evangelical Christians, who rated themselves very highly, drops the favorability rating of evangelicals down to just 32% among non-evangelicals. Additionally, the research revealed that respondents from the Millennial generation viewed evangelicals equally favorably as they viewed Muslims and atheists. Take a moment to let that sink in!

Several suggestions were offered concerning the meaning of these results. Personally, I believe there is increasing confusion over the very term “evangelical Christian”. Among the American population in general today, it often carries more of a political meaning than a religious one.

But what concerned me perhaps more than anything in the article was a statement at the end by sociologist Brad Wright, who was quoted as saying,

Ultimately, evangelical Christians might do well not to spend too much time worrying about what others think of us. Christians in general, and evangelical Christians in particular (depending on how you ask the question), are well-regarded in this country. If nothing else, there’s little we can do to change other people’s opinions anyway.”

I can’t help but think that such attitudes might be contributing to those disappointing results revealed above – especially among Millennials. Does it matter what others think of us? Is there anything we can do to change others’ opinion of us? On both counts, I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.

In the span of four chapters in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes three statements that we ought to keep in mind in our daily interactions with those who cross our path:

  • “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NIV)
  • “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV)
  • “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NIV)

Taken together, these passages paint a beautiful picture of lifestyle evangelism – the kind of life that prompts questions about the source of our hope. (1 Peter 3:15)

Does it matter what others think of us? … Absolutely! As his ambassadors, what others think of us reflects upon the Christ we represent. As letters from Christ, what others think of us either opens doors for witnessing or closes ears to our message. And the aroma we project will either draw others to Christ or drive them away. If it drives them away, it is probably not the pleasing aroma of Christ we are projecting.

Does it matter? … Maybe we should ask a Millennial.

“When people sense a Jesus-like attitude and spirit from us, it clears the path for relationship; and perhaps for a testimony that just might be heard without defensiveness.” – Dave Desforge

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Lessons From The Cotton Field

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.’” (Matt. 13: 3-8 NIV)

imageJesus often spoke to the multitudes in parables, which are simple stories designed to illustrate spiritual lessons. Many of his parables were related to agriculture, since most of his listeners were familiar with agrarian principles. Having grown up on a cotton farm in Georgia, they speak to my heart as well.

This particular parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, has always been my favorite. As with so many of Jesus’ teachings, it seems that every time I read it and take the time to digest its full meaning, I see something new.

If you’re familiar with the story, you know that our Lord went on to explain the parable to his disciples, telling them that the seed represents the message of the gospel. It sometimes falls on hardened soil, never penetrating the listener’s heart. The seed falling on rocky soil represents those who receive the message with joy, but whose roots of faith are so shallow that trouble or persecution causes them to fall away. The seed falling among thorns are those who allow the “worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches” to choke the word, making it unfruitful. And last, of course, are those who hear the word, understand it and produce a bountiful crop.

As I reflect on my own faith journey, which I shared in my last post, The Eternal Question, I can see myself in all four stages of this parable at different times in my life. My heart was hardened for many years, not allowing those seeds of the gospel to take root at all. After coming to faith at the age of twenty-four, very little spiritual growth took place in the rocky soil of my heart for the next twenty years. Even after finally surrendering my heart fully, I still struggle with my sinful nature and the cares of this world to maintain a fruitful, Spirit-filled life. Invariably, when I come to this parable in the Scriptures, I still stop to consider where I am on the faith spectrum illustrated by Christ’s words.

Others may view this parable from the perspective of the farmer, seeing their role as simply sowing the seed, sharing the gospel with whomever may cross their path, knowing that it will often fall on hardened, rocky, or thorn-infested hearts. A major flaw in that perspective is not realizing that the farmer sowing the seeds also has the responsibility of preparing the soil. Never lose sight of the fact that the determining factor of the impact of the gospel in this parable was the condition of the soil.

imageAs planting season approached, my father would spend countless hours preparing the soil of our fields before a single cotton seed was sown. We would often start by clearing the fields of rocks lying on the surface. Prominent in my memories are vivid images of him clad in his overalls, setting up the plows and harrows on his International Harvester Farmall tractor, and heading for the fields with a wide-brimmed hat cocked on his head and a dust cloud trailing behind. Soil samples were tested to determine the nutrients to add to the soil as we planted the seeds. As in so many aspects of life, preparation was vital.

And so it is with spreading the gospel. We can spout the truths of God’s Word on every street corner and to every person we meet. But if we have not prepared the soil by first establishing a relationship and living a life that reflects those truths, our testimony will often fall on deaf ears. If people do not sense the love of God in our hearts or experience from us the grace of God by which we claim to have been transformed, they will want little to do with the Christ we profess.

1 Peter 3:15 says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect…” (NIV) As you digest that verse, ask yourself, “Does my life reflect the hope that Peter is talking about – a hope so visible that it would prompt such a question?” That is the essence of lifestyle evangelism.

The world desperately needs the hope that only Jesus Christ provides. As a good friend often reminds me, “You never know who’s watching or whose life you are impacting by your actions.” It is often those daily, seemingly inconsequential interactions with others that  prepare the soil of someone’s heart to one day receive the life-changing good news of the gospel so that it takes root, flourishes, and yields a bountiful crop.

Prepare the soil of someone’s life this week by making God visible through yours.

“Most people draw conclusions about the Christian faith by observing the lives of ordinary believers, not by studying doctrine.” – Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace