By Stan Friedman
PORTLAND, OR (June 27, 2009) – “I invite all of us to create a culture of conversation where significant, sensitive words are spoken and appropriate deeds are done,” Mark Novak told worshipers gathered for tonight’s ordination and commissioning service as the 124th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church drew to a close.
Novak, the North Pacific Conference superintendent, rooted his sermon in Acts 17:16-34, which recounts the Apostle Paul engaging philosophers of Athens at the Areopagus.
Those verses, Novak said, “have not only shaped this message tonight, they have shaped my ministry and my life.”
The story demonstrates that Paul valued people, Novak said. “He loved talking about Jesus, and he invested his time. Paul’s life was a conversation about Jesus.”
Following Paul’s example, Novak said, “We must rediscover, we must create a culture of conversation where it is natural and normal to talk about spiritual things, even about Jesus, about new life for the sake of the gospel.”
More than 1,300 people attended the service with some 700 others around the world watching the live broadcast online, including Hong Kong, Colombia, Mexico, and Canada.
Novak began by quoting some of the early lines of the book The Soloist, in which Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez recounts his first meeting with Nathaniel, a homeless man who turned out to be an alum of the Julliard School of Music.
“My chance encounter had affirmed the golden rule of journalism: everyone has a story, so get out of the office and talk to people. There is no telling what you may find.”
The mass use of social media such as Facebook demonstrates that “there are a myriad of ways in which we are trying to create conversation, just so somebody listens to us and hears our story,” Novak said.
Novak lives in the Seattle, Washington, area and he reflected on the high concentration of coffee shops in the city and how they provide the opportunity for being a modern Areopagus. “If you sit long enough and listen, you will hear conversations about spiritual things,” Novak said.
Unfortunately, he added, “We are far too busy doing church to even care.”
Paul demonstrates what a culture of conversation looks like, Novak said. “He valued people, he loved talking about Jesus, and he invested his time.”
Novak declared, “Paul’s life was a conversation about Jesus.”
The conversation that took place in the Areopagus was the culmination of many conversations with individuals and smaller groups, Novak said. “Paul’s presence in those places made a huge statement about his priorities, about his love for people,” Novak said. “He ached for them to know Christ.”
That presence was equally as important as Paul’s words, Novak said. “This was his appropriate deed for this time.”
Novak added, “Conversation is not only a verbal communication. It is a lifestyle for a world that is weary of words.
“Christians too often miss out on the joy of that conversation, however, because they are too afraid of engaging the rawness of the world and people different from them,” he observed.
The conversation can also be inconvenient. “It is a calling to nighttime phone calls,” Novak said. “It is a call to interrupted plans and schedules.”
But, he added, “When love has a context, it has no equal.”
Novak highlighted the redemptive work of Joseph and Carmen Ottley, both of whom had lives nearly destroyed by drug addiction. Joseph had spent several years in prison. With the help of their Covenant church, they have gone on to open four homes for people seeking to lead sober lives.
“You might not know Jesus when you come to live there, you might even leave without trusting Jesus, although I doubt it, but I will guarantee you that you will hear and engage in meaningful conversation about him while you live there,” Novak said. “It is a place where sensitive, significant words are spoken and appropriate deeds are done.”
Novak turned to an unlikely YouTube video as a call for Christians to engage in such conversations. In the video, Penn Jillette of the Penn and Teller illusion and comedy team recalls a man waiting following a performance to share the gospel with him.
Although Jillette’s comedy often is off-color, he was appreciative of the man’s concern. “In the video, Penn asks this haunting question,” Novak said. “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe in everlasting life and not tell them?”
Novak reiterated that a conversation about spiritual things should not be missed. “Paul’s life is a conversation about Jesus,” he said. “Your life is a conversation about Jesus. May we find great joy in the simplicity of conversation about Jesus.”
He concluded by encouraging the newly ordained and commissioned ministers. “I pray that you will find incredible joy in this great adventure we call ministry.”
Following the sermon, David Kersten, executive minister of the Department of the Ordered Ministry, noted that the conversation about Jesus includes vows. “The highest vows we ever speak are the vows of our conversion and baptism.”
He then led the entire gathering in renewing those vows.
Editor’s note: Top photo is of Novak; remaining photos are representative of the evening’s ordination and consecration ceremony.