I took a 5-day long trip to the Jersey Shore during the week of July 4. Monday afternoon to Saturday morning. But my feet never touched the sand. Why? Because there was “kingdom work” to do at the Boardwalk Chapel in Wildwood, New Jersey. (See also the Boardwalk Chapel Facebook.)
Every evening at the chapel, our church youth and adult chaperone team contributed sermonettes, songs, and skits to the regular summer staff evangelistic program. It’s a pseudo-church service tailored for the boardwalk crowds passing by. All designed to catch the ear of folks for at least a few moments. For one reason: to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in various forms: music, Bible homily, personal testimony, drama, or apologetic moment. All the elements are carefully prepared and require lots of rehearsing. One reason for no beach-time.
Besides the evening evangelism program, each day is filled with planned activities including morning worship and devotions, evangelism training, non-Christian worldview analysis, VBS assistance, household chores, and program practice. Between meals, activities, and the free time scheduled for the youth, I had to pare down my sermon outlines to 5-10 minute messages. To preach a sermon so short and still coherent, that takes time. Another reason for no beach-time.
But the most free-flowing reason why I got no beach time (and what makes the sacrifice worth it) is the draw of the Heaven-Hell machine. It’s an old-style arcade-like questionnaire tempting boardwalkers to step up and test their knowledge of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell. After answering a series of seven questions, a path will light up on the front of the machine indicating the eternal destiny of the player. Well, not really. The machine is a conversation starter, and it was the occasion for plenty of gospel-oriented conversations all day every day. If you’re curious, take the True/False test below.
Heaven or Hell machine
- There are many ways to get to heaven, so it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow as long as you are sincere.
- God cares about right and wrong.
- God will punish sin.
- Hell is not real. God would never send anyone to such a terrible place.
- Everyone who has ever lived will have to one day stand before God to be judged.
- All humans are born with a sin nature, and because of sin, are headed for Hell.
- If a person tries his best to live by the Ten Commandments, and he does more good deeds than bad deeds, he will go to Heaven.
Click here for the answers and Bible references.
Some of my favorite times of the week involved conversations with people of all different stripes, many of whom were drawn into conversation engaging the Heaven or Hell machine. I met a real ghostbuster: a woman who claimed to be a “paranormal investigator” would also identified herself as a Roman Catholic. She said her father (priest) acknowledged her “gift” and legitimized her activity in the occult. At the end of our conversation, I got her to admit that Christianity and the occult are fundamentally incompatible. Unfortunately she was leaning toward dumping Jesus for the spirits of the dead.
I also spoke for over an hour with a young man named Jarrod who was hanging out with his girlfriend. She seemed to be antagonistic to religion in general and the exclusive truth claims of the gospel in particular. One of the ladies on the Chapel Staff engaged her in discussion. I had the privilege to speak with Jarrod. He was full of questions about the Bible, Christianity, the gospel, and how science and faith are compatible. It discovered that Jarrod’s stumbling block to believing the gospel and becoming a Christian was the vastness of the universe. He was caught up in speculative astrophysical theories like multiple universes and the contents of black holes. After steering the conversation back to the gospel several times, he told me the gospel is the best story of the world he had ever heard, and if it were true then it would change everything. I gave Jarrod a copy of Ultimate Questions by John Blanchard after he refused a small New Testament. He seemed very appreciative and promised to read it.
On the last night we were there, a couple hours after preaching two sermonettes on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a group of friendly “rowdies” wandered into the chapel. It was late, and a couple of them were obviously drunk. Two of them wanted to act the rock star on the stage, and the chapel musicians played along for awhile, just spending time with them in a fun environment. Shortly after, the chapel staff drama director steered the conversation with the group of them toward God. “So, here you are in a chapel on the boardwalk. It seems natural to ask you what you believe about God.” You can imagine their replies. “Ah, you can’t talk about religion. It’s personal and whatever a person believes is cool for them.” “I believe in God, but also a lot of other things.” “I know what God wants…same thing all the religions teach about him. That if you’re a good person and try to live your life the right way, then you’ll go to heaven.”
That’s when I opened my mouth. I couldn’t hold my tongue, which is what I do way too often in these kinds of situations. I replied as they were getting up to leave, “I’m not so sure about that. Have you ever heard Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son?”
A story. That got their attention. “Naw, man.” “Do you want to hear it?” I asked. “Sure, cool. Tell us a story, bro!” They sat back down to hear a story.
So that’s what I did. I simply told them the same story Jesus shared 2000 years ago. Minimal explanation or commentary. Basically the unvarnished parable.
They were absolutely spellbound, riveted by the story. It was amazing. They had never heard the story before. Ever. At each turn of the narrative, they responded exactly how I envisioned Jesus’ audience did.
The prodigal leaves home and father to shamelessly party. Shock.
The prodigal wastes his inheritance on prostitutes and riotous living. Heads-hung, eyes lowered.
The prodigal comes to his senses and resolves to return to his family as a mere servant. Raised heads in anticipation.
The father’s lavish joy upon seeing his son, running to him, hugging and kissing him, fully restoring him, and then throwing a huge party for his return from the dead, from being lost. Looks of wonder, with eyes swelling with tears.
The older brother bursting in anger at his younger brother and father. Then the father showing his dutiful, religious, yet ungracious son love and inviting him into the feast. Jaws dropped.
When I finished, I said something like, “That’s what Jesus says God is like. That’s the kind of God worth giving your life to, because he loves and forgives even the worst of us, and shows no special treatment for religious people.” What I said wasn’t really important. The Holy Spirit had already done all the work.
I’ll never ever forget the drunk young man said next. He raised his head slowly, with a sobering look about him. With eyes of understanding, he offered up with raw emotion, “I wish it were true. I wish it were true.”
Now, that wasn’t the end of the night for he and his friends. After the end of the story, then thanked us, got up, and started to walk back to the boardwalk. But they didn’t make it out for awhile. They decided to spend the next hour in dialog with various people in the chapel. No longer skeptics and mockers, they were thirsty to know more about the God of the prodigal son. I witnessed the words of Jesus transform a group of people ignorant of Jesus and the gospel to people longing for more. Most of all, longing for it to be true. That is most of the work of the evangelist. Get a person to wish the gospel is true. At that point, we remove various stumbling blocks for the seeker, whether they are intellectual, emotional, moral, whatever. And gently lead sinners to the Savior.
But my takeaway was that we Christians sometimes forget what we have. The gospel that Jesus preached is wonderful. It elicits wonder from those who hear it with ears to hear. So many people have never heard the good news of salvation that comes through Jesus. Yes, it is God who opens hearts to believe. Yes, God is sovereign over all things, even salvation. Yes, God is able to save unbelievers who have never heard the gospel. But God has entrusted the sharing of the gospel to his people. What a privilege. What a treasure. May more Christians come to realize the pearl of great price (salvation in Christ and inheritance of the kingdom of God) and share the news with their friends and neighbors.