Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the Winter 2000 edition of Essentials  


  In Search of Success

By Peter Adlem

Peter Adlem is Youth Outreach Minister at GlenWaverley Anglican Church
  The phrase "you've got to meet people where they are at" is a common phrase associated with evangelism today. Is there a Biblical basis for it? How might we achieve it in practical ways as we preach the word of Christ to unbelievers?  
  There does appear to be Biblical support for "meeting people where they are at" in the principle of being "all things to all people in order to save some" (1 Cor 9:19-23). This principle is given paradigmatic expression in "Acts of the Apostles" as we see different approaches towards sharing the gospel with: Jews (Acts 2); Samaritans (8); god-fearers (10); pagan idol worshippers (14); pagan intellectuals (17); and John the Baptist followers (19).  
  But how are we to apply this principle in the context of a largely Post-Christian Australia? Firstly, we need to question people's thinking. In his recent very helpful book on personal evangelism, Nick Pollard champions the concept of listening to and then challenging a person's worldview as a way to cause interest and opportunity for gospel proclamation. If this is important in personal evangelism, how much more important is this in a public opportunity for gospel proclamation.  
  I would like to suggest that wisdom literature is an excellent place to "meet people where they are at". To a society obsessed by sexual fulfilment what better starting point than "Song of Songs"? To a society still gripped by the lure of success, what better starting point than "Ecclesiastes"? To a society that largely ignores God in the good times and apportions blame when things go wrong, what better resource than "Job"? To a society committed to finding the best way to live, what better counsel than "Proverbs"? Of course this is but the starting point – by the end of the sermon we want to share the good news of Christ  
  Here is a sample outline of an evangelistic talk I have given titled "In search of success."  
  Firstly, the topic of searching for success is approached by a number of examples.  
  Bill Gate's 11 secrets to success.  
  What sort of success do you want?  
  • Expendable cash?
  • A perfect relationship?
  • Power?
  We all want some sort of success.  
  The Bill Gates tips provided a good intro. They were pithy, funny and relevant for the listeners (Herald-Sun April 7, 2000). For instance, "Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one... Life is not fair. Get used to it." Using someone else's comments to introduce a topic distances the speaker from owning commonly held views and prevents moralising.  
  After the tips, three aspects of success were touched upon: success as expendable cash (using a personal story about Amway), as a perfect relationship and as power (using a story about the statues in the foyer at 101 Collins St). In this section I wanted to help people expand their definition of success so as to include everybody. I tried to pick both female and male definitions and used a variety of stories and illustrations. Rather than explain these definitions, I let stories do the work with one line of proposition at the start and at the end to reinforce the point of the story. I ended this section by affirming that we all search for success using Jane Flemming's new book "Fast track to success" (Penguin Books, 2000) as an illustration.  
  Secondly, the topic of success is approached by telling the search of "The Searcher" in Ecclesiastes 2.  
  Recount the search found in Ecc 2:1-10.  
  Highlight that "the searcher"  
  • was guided by wisdom.
  • knew what it was to succeed and to enjoy life.
  And yet the searcher says "everything is meaningless" = "everything is frustrating and confusing because even when you get exactly what you thought you wanted you're not satisfied" (Ecc 2:11)  
  But even though life can be frustrating and confusing:  
  • life is still good
  • all good things come from God (God is no killjoy) (Ecc 2:24-25).
  Ecclesiastes provides an account of a search for success and is a perfect text to use for this topic.  
  By way of background on Ecclesiastes: After the prologue (1:1-11), there is a double introduction (1:12-15; 16-18). The first introduction concerns the issue of the search for success and is tightly linked with 2:1-11. The second introduction concerns the issue of wisdom which is tightly linked with 2:12-23. Therefore, 2:24-26 provide a concluding comment on the material thus far.  
  Given the scope of an evangelistic talk, I decided to limit the discussion to the "meaningless" nature of success, and not to speak about the shortfalls of wisdom.  
  This meant that the texts 1:12-15; 2:1-11, 24-26 were of particular concern.  
  I used: 1:12-15 to form my introduction to  
  the Searcher's search, 2:1-10 as the account of the search, 2:11 as the conclusion of the search, and 2:24-25 as a mitigating factor in the "meaninglessness" of the search. In 2:26, we see a wonderful stepping stone to the New Testament. Although this verse was not explicitly used in the sermon, it informed its direction.  
  Before we go any further, a short note should be said about the key word in Ecclesiastes, hebel, used some 38 times and often translated 'meaningless' or 'vanity'. I have heard many speakers say that life without God is 'meaningless', so come to Christ and have a 'meaningful' life. This, I suggest, is a misunderstanding of the message of Ecclesiastes.  
  Ogden examines some painful scenarios about human life which are all described as hebel (Ecc 3:16-19, 6:1-2, 4:7-8, 8:14), and shows why translations such as 'meaningless' or 'vanity' are inadequate. The persecution of the righteous and the exaltation of the wicked is not 'meaningless' - rather it is a confusing anomalous dimension of life (Ecc 8:14-15). Indeed, the many enigmas of life are not only confusing – they are frustrating and cause the writer of Ecclesiastes much turmoil (e.g. Ecc 6:2).  
  This author's own suggestion for a translation of hebel is 'frustratingly confusing'. Life is 'frustratingly confusing' not because the writer is not taking God into account: it is partly because of life's brevity, partly because of humankind's ignorance as finite creatures and partly because of the reality of sin.  
  This point is then illustrated by two stories. I tell a personal story about a time when I searched for a place at Uni, and when I got it I just felt flat. And I also tell a story about the often transient experience of success (D. Lesser, Good Weekend 25/3/00, 20-21.)  
  The answer given in Ecclesiastes to the problem of "meaninglessness" is two-fold: enjoy life and fear God (2:24-26).  
  So far we have tackled the first part of this answer but not the second. Before we exhort our listeners to fear God we must relate it to the gospel story.  
  Thirdly, the topic of searching for success is approached by telling the search of God in Jesus.  
  While we were searching for success and searching in all the wrong places, God came to search for us (Cf. Rom 5:8).  
  Read Luke 15:3-7.  
  Re-tell the story.  
  Highlight that:  
  • We are like lost sheep who are smelly and stupid, searching in all the wrong places.
  • God is like a shepherd who sent Jesus to search for us.
  • Jesus' search cost him his very life.
  • God rejoices when we stop searching for success & start searching for him.
  We have a choice:  
  • continue searching for success which will lead to frustration and confusion. Ultimately we will all need to face God and give an account to him of why we didn't search for him.
  • begin to search for God and begin to live his way. Enjoy life despite the enigmatic nature of life.
  Perhaps the most obvious link from our text in Ecclesiastes to the New Testament is seeking God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matt 6:33). However, it does not provide an easy entrance to the Gospel story. By using the parable of the lost sheep, we paint the story of our search for success on the broader canvas of God's search for us.  
  Although, the original intention of this parable was for Jesus to explain his ministry of "seeking and saving the lost" to the Pharisees and to encourage them to do likewise, I see no reason why it cannot be used to explain the gospel to unbelievers.  
  In wisdom literature, sin and folly are tightly linked. It is quite appropriate then, in the parable of the lost sheep, to highlight the stupidity of our search.  
  It has been commented that Luke is more interested in the fact of salvation rather than the means (Cf. Mk 10:45; Lk 19:10). Luke certainly understands the death of Jesus to be the means of salvation, but the mechanics of "how" are not nearly as explicit as in John for instance. Given this, I decided that it is was important to focus on the cost and result of Jesus' search rather than focussing on the mechanics of the atonement in this case.  
  I finished by calling upon people to stop searching for success and to start searching for God (a valid thing to ask, even though they cannot, by themselves, achieve this). I tried to point out both the now and the future aspects of our respective searches.  
  After exhorting the audience to change I invited people to pray the prayer below.  
  Dear God,
I know that when I search for success, I often feel confused and frustrated.
Thanks that you've given me heaps of stuff to enjoy.
I know that I've been searching for the wrong things.
I'm blown away that you would search for me so hard that it cost Jesus his life.
Please help me to stop searching for success and start searching for you.

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