AH, LOOK AT ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE
A sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
June 14, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today for the next few minutes, we are going to think together about a word that has lost a lot of currency in church life over the last couple of decades. It used to be a prominent topic of conversation, especially among Baptists. But I have noticed that the word has fallen on hard times lately. And in some circles, it has become almost disreputable. In discussions among church and denominational leadership, this word has been replaced with a more modern term: “church growth.” What I am talking about is “the E word”—evangelism.
I want to go on record to state from the outset that the word “evangelism” is not a bad word—or at least it should not be. “Evangelism” is actually a word that has its roots in the Bible. It is derived from the Greek word euangelitzō, which means “good news.” And certainly that is what the gospel of Christ is: It is good news to those who are seeking a connection to God and to those searching for a more meaningful way to live…or at least it should be.
I think that part of the reason that evangelism has gotten a bad rap is the way that it has been done in the past, and the way that it has sometimes been portrayed—or even caricatured. What I want to do is to talk about how we have done evangelism in the past, particularly through the lens of being a lifelong Baptist. Then I want to compare and contrast it with what Jesus says about evangelism in today’s text from Matthew…
About a hundred years or so ago, many—if not most—churches did evangelism through Sunday night evangelistic services. The Sunday morning worship hour was a time for the people of God to gather to worship, and praise, and be instructed on how to live as a follower of Jesus. Evangelism—alternately known as “winning the lost”—was not a primary function of those gatherings. But Sunday evening was a bit different. It was a bit looser, the music was different, and the focus was on proclaiming the good news to those who had yet to make a profession of faith. For its time, it was a very successful way to add people to the kingdom. Eventually though, the effectiveness of Sunday night evangelistic meetings wore off. Although few churches that I know still hold Sunday night services, they are no longer efforts to evangelize the lost. Instead, most are simply pale imitations of what the Sunday morning service does. And I know of few churches where Sunday evening worship is flourishing…
Back around the middle of the 20th Century, another way to reach the lost was through city-wide evangelistic crusades. (Anybody here remember them?) Where I grew up in northwest Georgia, every couple of years, the local churches would band together to sponsor an evangelistic crusade that was held at the local high school football stadium. There would be months of preparations beforehand with
P a g e | 2
cottage prayer meetings, door-to-door surveys being taken in the neighborhoods, financial resources would be pledged, ads were purchased in the local newspaper and on local radio stations, and teams of spiritual counselors would be trained to aid those making decisions at each of the services.
The crusade would usually last one (occasionally two) weeks and would feature some prominent full-time evangelist. Sometimes there would also be a famous gospel musician to provide the music. One year, it was really a big deal in my town when Grady Wilson, a member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association team, came to conduct the crusade. And on least two occasions that I remember, the annual crusade was led by none other than the so-called “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” himself, Bob Harrington. (Does that name ring a bell with anyone?) Harrington has been described as perhaps the flashiest, the most flamboyant and the most entertaining of all the revival preachers of the era.
During the week of the crusade, everybody would go to the crusade most every night and endeavor to bring their unsaved friends with them, all in the hope of harvesting more souls for Jesus. I do not know this for a fact, but I would wager that Lynchburg also had its share of city-wide evangelistic crusades during that time as well…
But these too have fallen out of favor. In fact, I cannot tell you the last time that I have heard of a town or city holding a city-wide crusade enlisting the participation of the local churches. And I have heard of very few ministers nowadays who consider themselves to be full-time evangelistic preachers. The city-wide crusade was another evangelistic method that was effective in its time. But its expiration date has long since passed…
And when I was growing up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, many churches—particularly those of the Baptist or Methodist persuasion—would hold revival services of their own. At the church that I grew up in, you could count on having a week-long series of revival meetings every spring and every fall. It was similar to the city-wide meetings—only on a smaller scale. Every night would be a difference emphasis. There would be “Men’s Night,” “Women’s Night,” “Youth Night,” “Football Team Night,” and “Pack a Pew Night,” where the person who brought the most people with them to the service would be recognized. Another gimmick was also sometimes used. This didn’t happen at my church, but I have heard stories about pastors who would set attendance or decision goals for the revival. And if that goal was reached, then he promised to do something ridiculous like getting his head shaved or singing “I’ll Fly Away” at the top of his lungs from the roof of the sanctuary. That always seemed really silly to me. And I have no idea if such stunts were actually successful in increasing attendance at the services or not…
But like Sunday night services and city-wide crusades, the local church revival too seems to have pretty much run its course as well. As I drive through Lynchburg, I notice that a few churches still advertise holding revival services from time to time. But these services are much abbreviated from the week-long or longer series of meetings that were common in the past. Often they last only a couple of days…or maybe a weekend…or even just one day. I don’t know if these revivals are effective in reaching out to the lost in the community. But I suspect that they are not.
P a g e | 3
In the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, the emphasis in evangelism in churches—particularly Baptist churches—seemed to shift. The emphasis became not evangelistic meetings, but personal evangelism done by every church member. In Southern Baptist life, programs like CWT—“Christian Witnessing Training”—were developed with an eye to making every church member into a “soul-winning evangelist.”
A similar movement was the use of a gospel tract produced by Campus Crusade for Christ called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” (Anybody remember them?) “The Four Spiritual Laws” was a little booklet that was designed to be used as a tool for individual evangelism. The idea is that you could approach anyone—even someone you had never met before—and ask them the question, “Have you heard of The Four Spiritual Laws?” And if they responded that they had not, then you could go through the tract to explain “the plan of salvation,” beginning with words that became somewhat of a cliché in Christian circles, “Law #1—God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (When I was in college, it would sometimes be parodied by the young women that I knew as “Law #1—God loves you and has a wonderful MAN for your life.”)The thought was that you could go through the booklet with anyone in about ten minutes time and bring them to the place where you could lead them to pray for salvation.
As a teenager, I was trained on how to use The Four Spiritual Laws in personal evangelism. And I actually did try it on a few occasions. But I confess that I never felt comfortable with it. And if anyone really came to a saving knowledge of Christ through my sharing of the booklet, I have no memory of it…
One final entry in this trip down “amnesia lane” about evangelism…The 1980’s and ‘90’s saw the rise of the contemporary worship movement and its twin brother “seeker sensitive worship.” In this method of evangelism, the concept was to make church as non-threatening and appealing as one could be to the unchurched person. So symbols and language of the Christian faith which were determined to be difficult or unintelligible for non-Christians to easily grasp were taken out of the sanctuary.
Consequently, worship spaces came to resemble performing arts centers rather than church sanctuaries. Organs and hymns were replaced by praise teams and choruses. Video screens and short skits (sometimes live and sometimes prerecorded) were added to the service. Robes and suits were dispensed with and, in their place, ministers wore polo shirts and khakis. Preaching was not so much based on the scriptures as it was on the perceived “felt needs” of the target audience with titles such as “Five Secrets to a Successful Marriage” or “Help from the Bible in Raising Your Kids.”
Like most all other approaches to evangelism, it undoubtedly worked in some places to bring people into the church. Two churches that pioneered this approach are Saddleback Community Church in California and Willow Creek Community church in Illinois, which are two very large megachurches. Because of their initial success, the model of these two churches has since been widely imitated to various degrees by churches of all sizes and many denominations in many other places across the country.
P a g e | 4
But like all the other approaches to evangelism that we have considered this morning, this one too is reaching the end of its shelf life. The whole contemporary worship phenomenon is beginning to show its age and be less effective in reaching the lost than it once was. Even the large megachurches that went totally in on the contemporary worship philosophy are mostly plateaued or in decline these days. Though it was in vogue a couple of decades ago, no one much uses the phrase “seeker sensitive worship” in church circles anymore. And it is worth mentioning that even churches like Willow Creek—one of the original “seeker sensitive churches”—have reverted to reintroducing choirs and the singing of classic hymns as part of their worship.
I want to be clear about this: Evangelism is central to the church’s mission. As can be gleaned from our brief recounting of evangelistic techniques over the last century or so, methods have a tendency to come and go.1 In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus gives us the basis of true evangelism. This is something that is critical whatever the time or place. And frankly, I think it is one of the reasons why these evangelism trends that we have talked about have come—and for the most part—gone as effective methods of bringing others to Christ…
Matthew 9:35-37 reads, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”
Notice what the scripture says. Jesus looked out at the crowd and had compassion for them. When he saw the people, he was grieved for them. His heart was broken. His heart hurt within him. The word used here indicates that Jesus was stirred to the depths of his very soul when he observed the condition of the people. He likened them to sheep that did not have a shepherd.
Why were the people in such a condition? What was it that made them that way?
The Jewish people had been under foreign domination for more than six hundred years. They had been manipulated and exploited by others for their own ends. They had been unable to breathe the air of freedom, for they were constantly under the domination of one group or another. They had been beaten down by their oppressors. Ultimately they had been beaten down by life. They were a people without hope—for themselves, for their children, for their nation. They were a discouraged lot who had given up the dream that things were ever going to get better for them. They were stuck in a situation that yielded no prospect for improvement…
Here’s another reason: They were captive to a self-serving religious system that had become inherently corrupt. Their religious leaders had fallen under the control of the Roman Empire. Though
1 In the interest of time, I did not include the rise and fall of church bus ministries, which was one of the most prominent evangelistic church fads of the ‘70’s.
P a g e | 5
they said they were following the commandments of the one true God, in reality the priests were little more than puppets of imperial Rome. They were appointed by the governor and were subject to his orders. And those orders were little more than directives designed to keep Rome in power and to squash any kind of dissent. The priests and religious leaders by and large were not interested in feeding the people spiritually. Instead, they were primarily concerned with maintaining their position of prestige among the people and maintaining their grip on power.
Though they had heard for centuries how God had promised to send his Messiah to change things and to clean things up, the promise was long in its coming. They had been disappointed time and time again when the promise did not materialize. Consequently many had lost faith that such a thing would ever actually occur. As they looked around at the situation that they found themselves in, all they could do was be reminded how bad things were and how they were powerless to change them. There was no one to truly guide them. No one to care for them. No one to heal their wounds when they got hurt. No one to feed their famished souls. They were out there all alone—and on their own. They were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
What this passage teaches us about evangelism is something that I think is often lost among those who claim to have a passion for evangelism. Too often, what passes for evangelism is just a mutant version of it. The basis of evangelism is not some kind of contest of “winning souls for Jesus,” as if souls are some kind of trophy that engenders a kind of spiritual pride in the soul-winner. Nor is the basis for sharing the gospel to tell people that “There is a Hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” thus trying to frighten people into the Kingdom by playing on a fear of eternal punishment in Hell. Nor does sharing the gospel come from a place of moral superiority—where we have all the answers as we try to cram our understanding of spiritual things down some else’s throat. NO—none of that is the real motive for evangelism.
From four decades of ministry in the local church, I have discovered that you cannot argue people into the kingdom of God. No matter how hard you may try, it just won’t work. You cannot debate people into the kingdom. You cannot shame them into a relationship with God. You cannot badger and brow-beat others into accepting Jesus as savior. You cannot scare them in either. It just cannot be done. And because what often has passed for “evangelism” in the past has done precisely those kinds of things, it has left a bad taste in the mouths of many people—both inside of the church and outside of the church…
The genuine motive for evangelism is this—we are moved to compassion for people who are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. The only way that you can bring people into the kingdom…is to love them in. That has to be the starting place for all evangelism. To try to make evangelism anything other than that is a distortion of the teaching of our Lord Jesus—pure and simple. The task of the believer in Jesus is to help those around us who are harassed and helpless—those who are struggling with burdens too heavy for them to carry—those who are hurt and suffering from the things that life has thrown at them—those who are directionless and need the help, the healing, and the
P a g e | 6
guidance of the Good Shepherd. That’s really what evangelism is. And love and compassion is the place in our hearts where it starts. Anything less than that is less than what God intends…
I am sure that most of you recognize that the title of the sermon—“Ah, Look at All the Lonely People”—is taken from a recurring line that appears in a song by The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby.” “Eleanor Rigby” was released as the first single off of The Beatles’ Revolver album in August 1966. The song was a #1 hit in the United States, Great Britain, and practically everywhere else in the world as well.
However, today’s sermon ends with a different song. This song is titled “Lonely Voices” and it was written by Billie Hanks, Jr. What I find particularly interesting it is that this song “Lonely Voices” was written in 1967. That’s just one year after the worldwide success of “Eleanor Rigby.” Both of these songs deal with the sense of loneliness that pervades our society, though the songs come from different perspectives. I do not know for sure, but I suspect that the similarities between the songs is not accidental—that is, in some measure, I think that “Eleanor Rigby” served as an inspiration—either overtly or subliminally—for “Lonely Voices.” I would be very surprised to find out otherwise…
I would ask that you hear again the words in our text that describes our Lord Jesus. It says that he had “compassion for the crowd, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It is then that he calls for laborers to go out into the fields…
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Lonely voices crying in the city,
Lonely voices sounding like a child.
Lonely voices come from busy people,
Too disturbed to stop a little while.
Lonely voices fill my dreams,
Lonely voices haunt my memory.
Lonely faces looking for the sunrise,
Just to find another busy day.
Lonely faces all around the city,
Those afraid, but too ashamed to pray.
Lonely faces do I see,
Lonely faces haunt my memory.
Abundant life He truly came to bring us,
But so few His gift of grace receive.
Lonely people live in every city,
Those who face a dark and lonely grave.
Lonely faces do I see,
P a g e | 7
Lonely voices calling out to me…2
Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
AH, LOOK AT ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE