You could hardly believe it. But there it was in the Sunday Times of London on August 21, 1994. Rev. Stephen Abakah, who until recently had been basking on the sun-kissed shores of Cape Coast in Ghana, was joining several hundred missionaries from third-world countries to Britain. They rightly saw Britain as godless and immoral. They wanted to work in partnership with British Christians in calling this country back to God.
It is a bit of a shock for Westerners to realize that there are far more non-white than white Christians in the world, or that there are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in Europe and North America combined. But it is even more of a shock to realize that missionaries from the two-thirds world are evangelizing the West. There are Peruvian missionaries in Belfast, Tanzanians in Portland, Nigerians in Manchester, Brazilians in Edinburgh.
If Christians from overseas care enough to come over and help us, ought we not to be doing a bit about it ourselves? It may seem difficult, but it brings immense joy when we see someone else join the Christian family and discover the reality of Jesus in their lives. Take someone like Norman, for instance, a worker on the factory floor in a mill town in northern England. He discovered Jesus through friendship with Tim, a fellow worker. Tim invited him along to hear Billy Graham preach on one of his visits to Britain and helped him to get settled in as a Christian after he had gone forward and committed himself at the meeting. That was a great joy. But it did not end there. His father, Walter, another factory worker, could not help noticing the difference in his son’s life. So he got interested. He had many a long talk with Tim and came to his wedding. At the reception Tim’s dad happened to meet Walter and had the joy of helping him to make his decision for Christ. Before long Walter’s wife too came to the Lord and they both got involved at church. Meanwhile, Norman had introduced his wife to Jesus; soon they were both active members in their church. They then came across another coworker who had spent time in prison, and before long he too was rejoicing in the friendship of Jesus Christ. Guess what he is doing now? Running a halfway house for ex-addicts and prisoners!
Look at the new network of Christian relationships that has grown in this town. Look at what it has done in the homes, in the factory, and in reaching out to some of the neediest people in society. And look at the factors that brought them to Christ. There was the vibrant, informed faith of Tim. There was the quality of his Christian life, which excited comment. There were the friendships he developed. There was the very natural invitation to Norman to accompany him to Billy Graham. There was the steady nurture after a decision. There was the joy of one telling another, in the family and beyond. There was the impact of the church. There was the joy of the wedding and the unplanned chat that led to Walter’s commitment. A whole variety of factors went into that reversal of godless attitudes now under way in the town—the very reversal that overseas visitors are wanting to promote. What a tremendous joy! It is clearly what we should be doing if we have found Jesus to be the pearl of great price.
The whole idea of evangelism is unfamiliar to many churched people and objectionable to others. That is understandable. After all, the Christian faith has been around for a long time. It has shaped much of the culture of four continents. Churches are to be found in every town and village. The vast majority of people in America and England would describe themselves as Christians rather than being from any other religion. Many of them have been baptized as infants. So where does evangelism fit in? Are we not all Christians, especially if we are born in a “Christian” country? The whole idea of evangelism seems strange and unnecessary.
Many churched people feel more strongly than that. Evangelism is very unattractive to them. They have mental pictures of televangelists frothing at the mouth with impassioned appeals, first for your soul and then for your money. And more than one of these televangelists has been notorious for financial or sexual misconduct. No, the whole idea is reprehensible. In any case, is not evangelism a sort of brainwashing? Just like the cults? Why not let everyone make up their own minds on things like religion and values? This is a pluralistic age after all. Why should anyone try to change another person’s beliefs and allegiance?
That all sounds fine until we see what the Founder of Christianity has to say on the subject. He was far from regarding all churched people as in the clear. He lived among passionately dedicated worshippers of the one true God, the God who had revealed himself in Scripture. They gave a tenth of their income to God’s work, had a very high respect for their clergy, tried to regulate their lives by the teachings of their faith, went regularly to synagogue, and above all had a tremendous devotion to the temple at Jerusalem. Yet he had to tell them they would never enter—indeed, never see—the kingdom of God unless they repented of their sinful attitudes, entrusted their lives to him, and became his disciples. He went to great lengths in his teaching to make it plain that he was the Way to God, the final Truth about God, and the very Life of God incarnate. Listen to this, for example: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).
What an amazing claim! Only Jesus really knows the Father. Only he can make him known. He then issues a staggering invitation. Not “Come to the law” or “Come to the temple,” but “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He does not invite them to take upon themselves what the Jews called “the yoke of the law, ” but says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).
Jesus reinforced this strong emphasis on his mission and person in the parables. He told about the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son. The thrust of stories like these is twofold. First, to show that we human beings are lost. And second, to show that God is full of love for us and prepared to go to any lengths to get us back. If we are to take Jesus seriously, we are far from all right as we are, however Christian the country we live in. (And who would claim that for any country in North America or Europe?)
Jesus is just as dismissive of the idea that we do not need to engage in evangelism. The televangelists may get it wrong, but that does not let us off the hook. No sooner did he assemble a band of disciples than he took them out preaching with him. Then he sent them out on their own. Subsequently he sent seventy others to get on with the job of proclaiming the kingdom of God and living lives that showed the kingdom had arrived. His final instructions to his disciples were to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and he promised his abiding presence and power only to those who obeyed that injunction (Matt. 28:18–20).
In the light of the Founder’s instructions, it is difficult to see how Christians can properly duck out of evangelism.
Even so, we naturally shy away from evangelism. For one thing, we are not quite sure what it is. For another, is it not the pastor’s job? And anyhow, it is not appropriate to talk about Jesus, or to invade someone else’s “private space,” or to try to persuade people to change their minds about personal matters. In any case, we feel we don’t know enough: we might make a mess of the process and put them off forever.
Such thoughts run through our minds when we think (occasionally) about evangelism. I am sure God understands them, because he has given some powerful motivations to encourage us to get beyond them.
For one thing, God himself is the supreme evangelist. All through the Bible he is portrayed as the God who loves us even when we rebel against him. Indeed, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV). If the Almighty is like that, surely something of his loving concern should rub off on us, his worshippers?
For another, Jesus displayed a constant and profound care for those he called “lost,” lost in loneliness, separation from God, defeat, lack of purpose. He was always reaching out to them with the “evangel,” or “good news,” of the possibility of rescue and restoration once they entered the kingdom of God. That kingdom is not a place, but is a relationship with the king, a matter of putting God in his rightful place as number one in life. That is what Jesus was calling people to do; and as they responded they became welded into a sort of new society—a counterculture composed of people who not only talked of God’s kingly rule but displayed it in their lives and relationships. Through his preaching, through his healings and exorcisms, Jesus made it plain that he had come to bring in this kingdom of God. And at the end of his life on earth, as we have seen, he commissioned his followers to continue the job of proclaiming the good news and calling on people to respond. The last wishes of a dear friend are a sacred trust, are they not? How much more so is the last command of Jesus?
The Holy Spirit was the parting gift of Jesus to his people. The main purpose of the Spirit’s coming was to equip them for the mission they would otherwise have found too difficult. The disciples were expressly told not to go out of Jerusalem to try evangelizing in their own strength, but rather to await the gift of the Spirit who would enable them to bear courageous and effective witness (Acts 1:8).
How could there be a stronger motivation than this? The whole Triune God whom we worship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is deeply concerned with evangelism. If we take our Christianity seriously, how can we possibly hold back?
But there are two other considerations to bear in mind as we wonder whether to get involved in this good news business. One is the fact that we are entrusted by God with the gospel. After all, whom can he use to be messengers of reconciliation apart from those who have themselves been reconciled? How can he use people, however talented, who are still holding out against his love? Clearly he can’t. That’s why the New Testament talks about our being Christ’s ambassadors, his messengers, his stewards, his heralds, his servants, his witnesses. He relies on us. Indeed, he has no other way of extending the bounds of his kingdom than through the agency of those who are already members of it. It is an awesome privilege to represent the living God. And it is a compelling motive, too. The other thing to bear in mind is that people without Christ are in great need. This is soft-pedaled in our permissive society, which loosely assumes that it does not matter what you believe: all will be well in the end. Jesus assures us that this is not the case. He tells us that we are either members of his kingdom or outside its gates. We are either reconciled with God or rebels. We are either lost or found. We are either in the wedding feast or in outer darkness. We are either building our lives on the rock of Jesus and his teaching, or building on sand. We are either for him or against him. We are either sheep or goats. We are either on the bonfire or in the barn. We are either on the broad way that leads to destruction or on the narrow way that leads to life. That is the human condition, according to Jesus. We are in deep need of Jesus the great physician, Jesus the reconciler, Jesus the sacrifice for sins, Jesus the bridge between God and man. We have either thrown in our lot with him or we have not. It is a clear choice and there is no middle ground. Of course there is plenty of room for gradual movement from darkness to light: it does not have to be a blinding flash and an immediate decision. Nevertheless, none of us can escape this change of masters. None of us can avoid bowing the knee to ask for forgiveness and reinstatement in the family of God.
Very well then, what of those who have not yet come to that point? They are in great need. They are either, as Paul puts it, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), or else they are “ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God” and seek to “establish their own” (Rom. 10:3). Of course, they do not see it like that, and Paul has an explanation for that, too. He is well aware, from much personal experience, that there is a great outside hindrance to evangelism—the devil. He calls him “the god of this world,” who takes God’s place in people’s hearts. And, says Paul, he has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Paul’s strategy, in response to this, is a life that shines with the renewing power of Christ, fearless witness to “Jesus Christ as Lord” and, by implication, heartfelt prayer to “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ that he will “shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:1–6). A holy life, fervent prayer, and fearless witness: that is how those who are blinded by enemy propaganda may be brought to see the truth they need so desperately.
So our responsibility and people’s need are two additional motives to rouse us from our apathy. But let us not go away feeling it is all a matter of dull duty. It isn’t. To help someone else to discover Jesus Christ is the greatest joy on earth. We are told there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Well, there is joy on earth, too. Take this example from a friend of mine:
The highlight of our visit to Israel was having dinner together each evening, when one of us shared a poem on his spiritual journey. One man, Jackson, shared his in the midst of the rich fellowship of a French restaurant. While he was speaking, we became deeply moved by the presence of our Lord, and none of us could speak. Later I asked Jackson to give the poem to the owner of the restaurant. She came back, having read it, with tears in her eyes. “I’ve never read anything with this kind of spirituality in it before. This is beautiful!” Katie said. She was crying. Then Jackson and I sang a duet of Psalm 25 we learned in our old Stanford days. The whole restaurant came unglued, and we had an amazing time sharing the Lord until 1 AM. I thought of you that night, envisioning you on the piano bench with a mug of beer in your hand, preaching the gospel. Each night was a new adventure in another restaurant, sharing the joy of the Lord with waiters and waitresses.
Nothing dull—or embarrassing—about a situation like that!
“Very well. Evangelism is part of the church’s responsibility,” you may be saying. “But there are lots of different ways of evangelism, and in any case it’s the minister’s job.”
Both of those statements are true, and both are misleading. It is true that there are lots of different ways of evangelism. Some people come to faith through going to a church service. Some through reading a portion of the Bible. Some through a vision. Some through a healing. Some through a sermon. Some through something they read. But extensive modern research in various countries leaves us in no doubt that most people are brought to faith through the loving persistence and friendship of someone close to them: a spouse, a friend, a family member. Remember Norman, Walter, and their wives! The step of commitment may be brought about through a sermon or an evangelistic rally, but the real work, preparing the way for the gospel, has already been done by that friend or relation through love, prayer, consistent living, and gracious, appropriate testimony. That is why personal evangelism is so crucial.
Our circle of friends and acquaintances is unique. Nobody else has the same relationship with that circle. We are the Lord’s representative to them. The New Testament has some interesting ways of suggesting how this role of representative might work out. It sees us as a sweet fragrance of Christ, like a woman’s scent or the aroma of a fine restaurant (2 Cor. 2:14). In that very same verse it sees us as willing captives in Christ’s triumphal procession. It sees us as an open letter that anyone can read (2 Cor. 3:2–3). It sees us as witnesses, willing and able to tell what we have seen and experienced (Acts 2:32). Most powerfully of all, it sees us as “ambassadors for Christ, ” as if we were representing our country’s policies in a foreign land (2 Cor. 5:20). Yes, there are lots of ways of evangelism, but none is so compelling, none so effective, as the meeting of friends, the conversation of those who know and trust one another.
Personal evangelism is the best sort of evangelism. I recall Billy Graham saying just that years ago, when I was a student at Cambridge University. There were hundreds of theological students at breakfast, and he was the speaker. He was aware that many were skeptical about the value of mass evangelism, which was new to England at that time. And I recall his saying something like this: “Mass evangelism is not the best way of evangelism, but it seems to be the way that God has entrusted to me, and I must be faithful to it. The best way of evangelism is when there are two people talking together and one leads the other to Jesus.”
Just as politics is too important to leave to the politicians, so evangelism is too important to leave to the clergy. The pastor may know more than you do, but he will not have the same circle of friends that you have. He will never be able to meet them as naturally as you can. They will probably be unwilling to come clean with him in the way they do with you. He will be seen as the professional who has a line to promote; you are the amateur who has no axe to grind. No, you can’t leave it to the pastor, however good an evangelist he may be. “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14), and we all have a part to play in spreading the good news. Our friends who are not yet Christians need to see that this good news is genuinely good for us. It makes an immense difference in our lives and we are not embarrassed to commend it in our own words.
Two examples brought this home to me, and will always stay in my mind. One was when a group of students went off to oversee a summer camp for handicapped youngsters. On their return I asked them if there had been any professions of conversion. They replied, “Yes, there was one.” When I inquired which of them had been instrumental in that change of direction, the answer came back, “Oh, it was none of us. It was a girl in a wheelchair, so badly handicapped that she could only speak about five words a minute. She was the one who led her friend to Christ.”
The other was an old lady of, I think, ninety-six. She was in hospital and when I, her vicar, went to visit her, I heard her talking (in a loud voice) to the doctor who was in attendance and challenging him about his relationship with God. When she saw me, she said, “Oh, here’s Michael. He can tell you more about it.”
We are all members of Christ’s body. Each member has a job to do. That job includes personal witness to Jesus.
1. What are some lessons to take from the story of Norman’s conversion?
2. What evidence do we have of God’s concern for evangelism?
3. What are some common misconceptions about evangelism, and how do they hinder rather than help the spread of the gospel?
4. What are three motivations for evangelism this chapter discusses?
5. According to this chapter, why is personal evangelism so important?