I blew it the other day. I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up. Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake. Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.
When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17). Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus. One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table. We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature. Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.
Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.” I was one of the early contributors. It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people. The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback. I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input. I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote. She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon. There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms. We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary. Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp. I took the lesson to heart.
I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field. When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind. Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate. I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible. Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation. Explain, explain, explain. Try not to take anything for granted. You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time. It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams. Lay it out for them.
So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church. I was asked to preach on Psalm 23. This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that. It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23. As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her. I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that. Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David? It’s Bryan’s funeral. He keeps saying the wrong name!” Face palm. That’s my face. My palm. My bad. I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23. It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either. That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners. I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.
Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball. Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message. Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort. And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message? No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness. Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can. After all, souls are in the balance. I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach. As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever. It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him. Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it. They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting. Responding to the message is their responsibility. Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine. Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.