I was challenged with the question of Evangelism recently. The person was frustrated about losing friends because of evangelizing and wanted some advice, so I told him that I would consider the question. After all, Jesus did say that people will persecute us for following Him (John 15:18-23), but does that reflect our life or our methods? I have had my eyes and ears open, consulted some other people whom I consider very Godly, and proceeded to think about the problem of Evangelism. As I wrote in Testing and Temptations, the American church has always been good at getting people to pray a prayer of salvation, but I question if that is enough. I believe it is not. This article reflects my first thoughts on the matter, though more will likely follow.
The challenge of Evangelism is real. We are commanded to go into the world to preach the Gospel, but the verse does not end there:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Notice that the commandment is not to get everyone to pray a prayer, but rather to disciple them, to baptize them, teach them the Word, and to persevere. To contrast this view, the American church particularly wants to send people to hand out tracts, get simple prayers for salvation, and leave the people with instructions to find a church. But what does that mean? The first time I went to a church after becoming a Christian, I went to a church from a different religion. I did not even know it! Sadly, I think that many well meaning modern-day evangelists will send the poor young sheep right into a den of wolves. We need to combat that trend.
Rather than fast and bold interactions, leaving tracts lying around, and being what the world might call a ‘Jesus Freak’, we should rather live quiet and patient lives, doing our very best to read, understand, and apply the Bible to our lives, and love people unconditionally. It is by our patient example that we will win people to Christ and then be able to speak into their life how to live, what church to try to attend, what Bibles are good (or not so good) translations. To lead someone to Christ does not end with praying a prayer, it is the start of a journey with a friend that will likely last a lifetime. Paul lead people to Christ and then kept communication with many of them mentoring through letters, other people, and in prayer. We all need to mentor people and we all need to be mentored, but the approach the American church sets people up with a prayer, and then typically leaves them alone to find out for themselves what the next step is. We need to love people for the long-term.
Secondly, the approach we are teaching tends to alienate many people. Most people are polite and will listen when a stranger approaches them, but once the evangelist walks away, most people will not take the message to heart. In fact, in discussions with some non-believers that I know, most initially think that anyone that approaches them in that setting is a Jehovah’s Witness or trying to convince them to join Amway. Considering that the recent Mormon approach is to attempt to integrate with the Protestant Christians, this could lead to some dangerous implications for our proselytes. Going back up to the verse in John mentioned above, the world will hate the Christians, but it should be our reflection of the light in our lives, not our approaches to evangelism:
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)
Finally, I fear that the modern approach to evangelism has more to do with covetousness than a real desire to see souls saved. I make this statement because it is the numbers that always get reported. How many people were talked to, how many people prayed to be saved? Those are the questions that committees always want to know, those are the numbers that they report. The plans are designed around increasing those numbers, and in theory, by extension increasing the roster in heaven. It is not, however, a numbers game. It is a game about commitment, about love, about living life with others while they climb out of sin and apply the righteousness of Christ to their life. That takes time.
Our curious title applies to magic bullets verses discipline. The problem of faith, of Christ, of the Christian life is one of discipline:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
This is not done in a vacuum, it is done in community, but in a community that is focused on God, His Word, and sharpening themselves to it. It is not focused on community for community sake. It is not focused on building numbers, it is focused on building lives one person at a time, slowly, over life. It is about living life together, but with a focus on how we can serve God and learn His ways. We need our brothers and sisters to pick us up.
As I reflect over how I came to Christ and what I have seen Christ do the in lives of others, I am reminded of two stories about evangelism as it pertained to my early life.
As a child, I was out biking with my brother and two friends. We were stopped by two evangelists who asked us if we wanted to go to heaven. Of course ingrained in our hearts is a knowledge that heaven is a great place of joy and hell is eternal torment, so who would want that? Our answers were curious as we went down the line, yes, yes, yes, I don’t care. That is right. I was the one that actually answered, “I don’t care” when faced with the question of where I would go when I died. This threw a little loop into the street preachers routine. But they talked about the great things of God, prayed with us four kids, and gave us a tract after we prayed to receive Christ. We were given the instructions to find a church. We put the tracts into our pockets and proceeded to ride away. These guys probably reported this great story of leading four kids to Christ! My brother prayed again later that summer at a camp and was told again to find a church. He does not walk with the Lord and even blames ‘God’ for a lot of problems in our life suggesting that if there really is a God, He would have stopped it all. He is not a Christian regardless of the little prayer. The last I saw those two friends was high school. They were both heavily using drugs, not following the Lord, and certainly that moment on the street did not impact their eternal destiny. Perhaps they follow the Lord now, I do not know.
A number of years later in high school, I met a man whom was a wise man of God. That was the year that I decided I needed to take school seriously as a possible means to escape my family dysfunction. This teacher saw my grades go from D’s and me sleeping through class to straight A’s and being awake. He thought some life transformation had occurred but kept that in the back of his mind and on the forefront of prayer. Two years later I worked with this teacher on an independent study and he asked me at one point if I would be open to discuss things of a Spiritual nature. I agreed but told him I would not make any promises. He simply said that is fine and we talked about God in addition to other fun topics, particularly since I hated people and was starved for some human interaction. He gave me a Bible, a few books, and just said to read them and consider what they say, and ask questions. I did read the books and said that I was not really interested in the content but I would think about it. I graduated high school and talked to him a few more times, but also met some other people that knew God and knew that man. After a long time of five years, I finally did become a Christian, not from pressure, not from emotion, but because God had transformed by heart. Real transformation takes time but our culture wants instant results.
I hope that the message is clear. We have a crock-pot problem of living life, needing encouragement, needing relationship, and needing to filter it all through God. By and large, most the American church is presenting a microwave solution to the problem. Quick relationships, quick numbers, and community for the sake of community is not the solution. Long-term discipleship that occurs when people are so captured by God that the Word flows through them is the way. The problem is solved from the ground up on a foundation of the Word. Learn from others, teach the new generation, and learn the Bible. Take a lesson from the Hebrew nation about how they were instructed to handle the things of God:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Be seeped in the Word.