When I was a brand new lead pastor, fresh out of college, I was invited by another pastor to come and speak to a group of teens. I had been serving as a youth pastor for several years, and was involved in camping ministries, so speaking to teens wasn't something new for me, but I didn't do a very good job when I spoke to this particular group that day.
My approach was all wrong. I was under the mistaken impression that in my new pastoral role, I needed to be more serious and somber. And what I ended up doing was communicating the life-changing word of God in the most dull and lifeless way possible. Those teens probably felt like they were at a lecture. I could see in their faces that they were bored to tears.
Afterward, when I spoke to the pastor who invited me, I could tell that he was disappointed as well. I asked him, "How'd I do?" And he said, "Well, it wasn't your finest moment, but that can be a tough age group to speak to."
Looking back, I wish I had allowed myself to show more personality, and I regret giving the unintended impression that God's word was dull. I wish I had shared it with more life and boldness. I wish I was more focused on the value of what I was sharing, and less focused on how I looked while sharing it.
And whether you're a teacher, a speaker, a preacher, or something else, there's a time for all of us when it's appropriate to speak with boldness, particularly in regard to the gospel of Christ. But when will that be, and how should we go about it?
I. Start by saying something nice
Years ago, I was reading a popular leadership book that gave this nugget of advice, "If you're ever writing a critical letter to someone, take a moment to share three things you appreciate about the recipient before you offer your critique." I think that's good advice, and in some respect, I can see the Apostle Paul doing something similar to that in this passage.
Look at some of the nice things Paul takes the time to state. He tells the church in Rome that in his eyes, they were full of goodness and knowledge, and likewise proficient enough in spiritual truths that they could effectively instruct one another. I think it was kind of Paul to say these things. If I had to guess, I imagine he was trying to be careful not to overload them or exasperate them while challenging them to continue growing in their faith.
This is a wise pattern for us to observe as well. Think for a moment about those whose faith in Christ you have the ability to influence. Your children and your family are influenced by you. Your friends and acquaintances are also under your influence. You even have influence over those you interact with in your church family. And if you truly want to earn the right to speak into their lives, I believe it should start with saying something nice.
This is a pattern Paul utilized as he taught and counseled the churches he served, and this is a pattern we should be mindful to utilize as well. Speaking with grace and kindness is most often a necessary precursor to earning the opportunity to speak boldly about more difficult matters.
II. Don't be afraid to gracefully stir people up
I already mentioned one story from my early days as a pastor, but allow me to mention another. I remember what a struggle it was for me to decide what to preach about each week during my first year of full-time ministry. I worried that I wouldn't have something new to share, or that people would say, "Eh, I've heard this before."
But not every teaching moment is about communicating something new. Sometimes we're supposed to be reminding others of the things they already know so those truths are brought to the front of their minds again. That's what Paul was trying to accomplish in this passage. He wanted to remind the Romans of the ways in which the grace of God was at work. We can see the Apostle Peter attempting to do the same thing for the church in his second epistle.
As men who were empowered by the grace of Christ, both Paul and Peter tried to gracefully stir up the early believers. To some degree, it appears from these verses that Paul was trying to help the church in Rome to appreciate the ministry that had been entrusted to him. Paul, who was Jewish in background, had been given an open door to preach Christ to the Gentiles, and he felt it was necessary to stir the church up to value this opportunity for evangelism and outreach.
Interestingly, this tends to be an area where we need to be regularly stirred up as well. Naturally speaking, we prefer to revert to familiar spaces and established relationships, but Christ has called us to minister to people that we often feel least likely to reach out to.
III. Let others know about the ways the Lord is accomplishing His mission through you
Do you have any close friends who continually brag about themselves? I ask that question somewhat jokingly because most people who continually brag about themselves don't tend to have very many close friends. They may have a few people here and there who graciously put up with them, but bragging is an effective way to repel people.
Sometimes when the Lord does something good in our lives, we share that information. Other times, we choose not to because we're fearful of it coming across like we're bragging, but as Paul demonstrates in this passage, there's nothing wrong with humbly letting others know about the ways in which the Lord is accomplishing His mission through you.
As Paul expresses the fact that he was proud of the work he had been doing for God, he also stresses that this emotion or perspective was "in Christ Jesus." He was stressing that the work that was being done wasn't being accomplished in his own strength. The strength Paul was utilizing for his ministry was supplied through Jesus, and Jesus is the one Paul was careful to glorify as he testified to the fruit of the work that had been done.
In fact, Paul stated that he wouldn't even bother to speak about work that he had done in his own strength. His goal was to testify to the work Jesus was doing in and through him. And what was Christ doing through Paul? Well, we're told that Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ and were demonstrating the genuineness of their faith through living in obedience to the Lord.
Let me tell you a little secret that Paul makes known in this passage. It's a secret that is worth knowing if it has become your heart's desire to serve the Lord where He opens up doors for you. There are going to be times when the Lord will accomplish powerful things through you. In Paul's case this involved various signs and wonders that were empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Lord did this to confirm that the message of the gospel that Paul was preaching was true. This was also done to confirm that Paul was a messenger of Christ. And if you carry through on doing what the Lord calls you to do, don't be surprised when the Lord works His power through you and validates you in the eyes of others as His messenger.
There are so many times throughout the course of my ministry when I became convinced that the Lord has caused something to work out well as a way of lending me His credibility. On many occasions I have whispered this praise to the Lord, "Lord, thank you for having my back. I see what you're doing, and I appreciate it." I wonder if Paul prayed similar things.
IV. Preach the gospel where it needs to be heard
The Lord has ordained the the gospel be proclaimed throughout this world from the lips of those who already trust in Jesus Christ. At this point, there are many generations of believers who have been faithful to make the gospel known in their households, in their communities, and in far off places where they've travelled, and in this way, the message has spread throughout the world.
But Paul's desire and ambition was to preach the gospel where people didn't already know about Christ. He went to cities and countries where Christ's ambassadors hadn't already visited, and the Lord opened the eyes and hearts of many people to believe.
Practically speaking, I think there's some good counsel for us to appropriate as we read this passage. We're being encouraged by Paul's example to preach the gospel where it needs to be heard. So, where is that? Where does it need to be heard? Who do you have a burden for? Who do you already have an audience with? Who do you know that would be more willing to hear the message of the gospel from you than they would from anyone else? Don't wait for better trained or more eloquent people to come along. Be the one who makes the gospel known where it still needs to be heard.
Not long ago, I read a brief story about a man named Hugh Lattimer. Lattimer was invited to preach before King Henry VIII, but he was so bold in his preaching that he upset the king. Henry VIII invited Lattimer to preach again the next week and instructed him to apologize for his offenses the previous week. But instead of doing that, Lattimer began his message the following week, acknowledging that even though the king had the authority to take his life, he answered to a greater authority in God who governed his soul. Then Lattimer preached the same exact message he preached the week before with even more energy. -Evangelism, A Biblical Approach, M. Cocoris, Moody, 1984, p. 126
As men and women who have become convinced of the life-changing power of Christ, we have been invited to testify about Him. We're empowered to be wise and bold witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we can be nice about it, but there isn't anything wrong with gracefully stirring people up.
So when and how should you speak boldly about Christ? Whenever He gives you the opportunity to do so, and in such a way that others are given a glimpse of His heart through what you say.
© John Stange, 2019