Ed Miliband, in his bid to become Britain’s next prime minister, has announced that during the forthcoming election campaign Labour activists will be knocking on more doors than ever before. Indeed, he expects his followers to hold as many as 4 million ‘face-to-face’ conversations.
But will every door be open to Ed Miliband and his supporters? I doubt it. By contrast in the Book of Revelation we discover the Risen Lord Jesus promising that a door of opportunity will be open to the church at Philadelphia:
Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name. (Rev 3.8).
Yes, even although the church in Philadelphia was a weak and somewhat disheartened church, they are promised that the door will be open to many ‘face-to-face’ conversations about the Christian faith. In spite of opposition from the local synagogue and no doubt others, opportunities for mission will abound.
Opportunity and opposition often go hand in hand. The Apostle Paul knew that. Writing to the church at Corinth he stated: “A wide door for effective work has opened up for me, and there are many adversaries (1 Cor 16.9 NRSV), or in the words of the GNB. “There is a real opportunity here for great and worthwhile work, even though there are many opponents”. Later, when writing to the Colossians Paul uses the same metaphor of “an open door” for evangelism: “pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ” (Col 4.4), and yet at that very moment he was writing from prison. The fact that there are difficulties is no reason not to make the most of the opportunity. Albert Einstein is on record as saying: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”. Somewhat similarly Winston Churchill once said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty”. Christians by definition are optimists – we are people of faith who know that in his cross and resurrection Christ has conquered the powers of sin and death, and that the day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The door is open for effective evangelism. I believe that what was true of Philadelphia, Corinth, and Colossae in the 1st century, remains true today for churches in the 21st century. Yes, winning people for Jesus and his church is not easy today – in the UK, for instance, there is not only wholesale apathy, but there is also outright opposition from militant atheism. Yet there are opportunities. Most people may have given up on church, but many still have not given up on God or on a ‘spiritual’ dimension to life, however that may be defined. Along with a spiritual hunger, there is also a hunger for meaningful relationships: in a world where loneliness abounds people long for a sense of belonging.
Many Christians need to recover their confidence in having ‘face-to-face’ conversations about their faith. They need to see that there is still an open door for effective evangelism. According to Rev 3.8 Jesus himself has opened the door, and what he opens nobody can shut. Still today the Risen Lord through his Spirit is creating a hunger in people’s hearts for God; still today he is opening people’s eyes to the truth of his love. But these opportunities for evangelism need to be seized. In the words of an old proverb: “Three things come not back – the spoken word, the spent arrow, and the lost opportunity”.
What’s more, there are Gospel opportunities not just for strong churches, but also for weak churches like the church in Philadelphia. Indeed, as Paul discovered, it is precisely our weakness that provides an opportunity for God to work in amazing ways.
These Gospel opportunities are of course not just for churches, but also for individual Christians. I find it fascinating that each of the seven letters to the churches here in the Book of Revelation contains the exhortation: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (see, for instance, Rev 3.18) On the one hand Christ’s word is directed to churches; yet individuals are also called to listen to what Christ has to say. Furthermore, we are not just to listen to what Christ has said, but what he continues to say (present tense) through his Spirit. Within the context of evangelism, both churches and individuals need to continue to be alert to the opportunities before them.
How do we begin to make the most of the opportunities that are ours? The key is surely friendship. Time and again research has confirmed that the single most important part of a believer’s journey to faith was a family member of friend. In this regard I came across some challenging words of Laurence Singlehurst:
Why doesn’t every Christian think of themselves as a pastor with a congregation not of fellow Christians but unchurched folk. So if every Christian had a small congregation of three people where they live, three where they work, or four where they work and one where they live, they do the two things that pastors do which is: Love people unconditionally regardless of whether they respond or not, and secondly seek their spiritual welfare.
If every Christian were to love in that way, then churches would immediately start to grow!
Yes, Jesus has set before us “an open door”. Let’s make the most of the opportunities before us!