You may have heard the name David Livingstone before. He was a famed British missionary, explorer, and abolitionist of the 19th century whose accomplishments included being the first European to discover Victoria Falls and travel across central Africa from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean. One fact that does not escape many modern day missionaries is how Livingstone learned winning converts was more difficult in Africa than in his British homeland: he saw only one convert during the 1840s.
This past Monday I was snowshoeing with one of BCC’s college students when he asked, “Do you think doing ministry in Vermont is like it was for David Livingstone in Africa?” He wanted to know if it’s going to take years and possibly decades before we see people respond to following Jesus. I replied, “I don’t think so, but I think it’s what most of us (Christians) believe… We’ve somehow bought into the lie that people in Vermont won’t respond to the gospel.” I believe the big bottom-line is we must relearn what it looks like to share the good news of Jesus with people around us.
Here are a few personal observations:
- When we assume people won’t respond to the gospel, we tend not to share the gospel. I hear often from Christians how our community is resistant to Jesus. My first response is usually, “tell me who you’ve been talking to about Jesus and how they responded.” The answer rarely involves a name or story. I have not found it any easier nor more difficult to share the message of Jesus with a friend in Burlington than friends in New Jersey or Atlanta- particularly when they’re coming from a non-Christian and/or unchurched background. The difference is that in Burlington that describes a significantly higher percentage of my friends and neighbors. A recent article by Barna research backs this up by describing Burlington as the third least “Bible-minded” city in the U.S.
- We cannot lean on inviting people to church programs, because they rarely respond to institutionalized religion. It’s been well documented that Vermonters don’t like church. According to a 2009 Gallup poll Vermont ranks last in church attendance, and a 2009 Pew Forum study discovered ranks last in their view of “importance of religion.” The strategy of investing in someone, then inviting them to a worship service or church program to hear the “big gun preacher” share a compelling message seldom proves effective. There’s not many of those communicators here and people wouldn’t flock to hear them anyway. Jesus-followers in this region cannot lean on someone else to share the message of Jesus to their friends and neighbors for them.
- We’re often hesitant to share because we don’t really understand the gospel nor how to share. We must allow the gospel to penetrate us and develop deep roots into our hearts. The message of Jesus must consume us, compel us, and become the lens through which we view every arena of our lives. Authentically sharing Jesus comes from the overflow of Jesus and His message filling our lives. There is no substitute for spending quality intimate time in prayer and His word, living responsively to what the Spirit is saying and doing, and then speaking openly and honestly about who He is and His activity in our lives. I’m often asked by other Jesus-followers how to begin discussing Jesus with others. My personal approach is simple: the same way I talk about my wife or my children. They’re central to my life and it’s impossible to talk about my life without mentioning them. The same should be even more true for Jesus.
As pastors, church-planters, and spiritual leaders, this all impacts the way we lead ourselves and others. We must begin by asking ourselves some honest questions about our own beliefs:
Do we believe God is at work drawing people to Himself and He is inviting us to join Him?
Do we believe God has purposely placed people in Burlington so they may seek Him and perhaps find Him?
Do we believe the good news of Jesus is powerful and sufficient for our salvation and the salvation of our neighbors?
The big question I’m continuing to pray through is, how can I more effectively root the people of our church in the gospel so we may more effectively live out Jesus’ message individually and together?