Neglected Tool Three: Thanksgiving
Sadly, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday in the UK. It’s a shame because I love the idea of setting aside an entire day to thankfully reflect on all we have and share in the company of other thankful folks. Oh, and Turkey (you can keep the yams though).
While in the UK we are neglecting the opportunity for a thankful heart each November via an official holiday, in the church, we may have ongoing gratitude neglect when it comes to evangelism. We are usually quite good at celebrating successes - e.g. salvation stories - but we’re not always so good at being thankful simply for the God-given opportunities in the everyday experience.
Paul reminds us we should give thanks in all circumstances, it is the very will of God in Christ Jesus for us (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Paul knew that the posture of a thankful heart impacts a person spiritually and emotionally and physically. As has often been the case, science caught up with biblical teaching in time and the idea of thankfulness (or gratitude as it is most commonly referred to) has now been long championed by psychologists who recognize its value to help people in numerous ways such as sleeping better, raising self-esteem, growing in empathy, and increasing mental strength, to name just a few.
With that in mind, thankfulness becomes a tool for evangelism simply by helping us go into the world as healthier people, which would be worthwhile enough! And yet, beyond the advantages of the mental and emotional benefits, gratitude helps us with evangelism most of all when it functions as a reminder of God at work in and through us.
Thankfulness can help us see beyond the ordinary of daily life, to the extraordinary ways in which God was at work. When we face discouragement, we can be thankful for what the Lord has done previously and trust him to work again. We can stir others to join the commissioning call of Christ by giving thanks corporately for the opportunities we have to share our faith each day. This can help people who may be anxious about getting involved in sharing their faith to see not every act of evangelism needs to have a neat salvation decision to be useful to God’s kingdom purpose. Thankfulness outworked this way can help to ease anxieties people might have about evangelism by realigning our ideas regarding ‘success’. Indeed, thanksgiving is a multifaceted tool for evangelism.
There are several ways we can make thankfulness part of our regular response to God as we seek to be faithful in our witness.
Here are a few ideas to get us started:
Keep a journal (or like me, a running notes file on my phone) of every opportunity God provided to share his hope with others (whether you took it or not). This will remind you of how God is at work in this way and remind you to pray for those you spoke with. It may also help you to seize upon missed opportunities next time, as you reflect upon the unrealized potential of a previous encounter.
Be intentional with friends and family, over dinner or other such gatherings, to express gratitude to God for how he has been at work in your life. I guess this is the most ‘thanksgiving’ like activity for those reading in the US. You might be used to doing this kind of thing once a year, but why not once a week? Build each other up in the regular fellowship of thanks.
Create space in your gatherings and services to celebrate stories of opportunity, not just salvation fruit. Of course, we want to hear about and celebrate salvation, but it is often the stories of God at work in the ‘ordinary’ opportunities of ‘ordinary’ people’s lives that resonate the most for us. If we are thankful for and celebrate the planting of the seed as much as when it comes to fruition, I genuinely believe we will see more seed planted.
Or to put it another way, creatively. The bible is full of creative expressions of thanksgiving. Read through a Psalm of thanksgiving and use it to express your own gratitude to God. Furthermore, use it as inspiration to creatively express that same gratitude in another medium. Taking the time to creatively express your thankfulness through poetry, painting, songwriting, or any other creative pursuit is a great way to reflect upon, declare, and reveal to others (including, evangelistically, those who don’t yet know Jesus) your thankful heart.
According to Karl Barth “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude”. When Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 1999 Academy Awards, he jumped up onto the seats in front of him and began celebrating wildly. After clamoring over numerous other seats and hugging anyone and everyone around him he eventually got to the stage and tried to express his thanks through broken English and his thick Italian accent. He needn’t have. Benigni’s limited English vocabulary couldn’t have expressed his thankfulness any more effectively than the actions of joy that so infectiously preceded them. Living joyfully, as an expression of our thanks to God, directly impacts the efficacy of our witness, and raises the curiosity of those around us.
As we go into the world, we can directly use thanksgiving in our witness by explaining to people why we are so thankful to God. As we express our thanks in these conversations we can reveal more of his character, his work historically (the gospel) and presently (testimony), and our eternal hope in him. Treating gratitude to God as a totally normal and everyday part of our conversational lives speaks volumes about the reality of a relationship with God and the hope it holds for those yet to trust him as Lord.
When one of the healed lepers returned to bow before Jesus in thanksgiving for his healing, Jesus responded: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well”. The leper had already been blessed with healing, but in the posture of thanksgiving, he discovered ongoing wellness can be found (Luke 17:11-19). For the wellness of our relationship with Jesus, and the wellness of our witness into the world, let us fall at his feet daily in thanksgiving. There may the church of Jesus Christ grow ever more confident in his goodness and with joyful hearts hear his voice afresh:
Rise and go.