Let me tell you an amazing story about a person you want to be like. And please hang in there through some of the details. I can’t tell stories any other way.
John Harper was born in a Christian home in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1872. When he was about fourteen years old, he became a Christian himself, and from that time on, he began to tell others about Christ. At seventeen years of age, he began to preach, going down the streets of his village and pouring out his soul in passionate pleading for men to be reconciled to God.
After five or six years of toiling on street corners preaching the gospel and working in the mill during the day, Harper was taken in by the Reverend E. A. Carter of Baptist Pioneer Mission in London. This set Harper free to devote his whole time and energy to the work so dear to his heart—evangelism. Soon, in September 1896, Harper started his own church. This church, which he began with just twenty-five members, numbered over five hundred by the time he left thirteen years later. During this time he had been both married and widowed. Before he lost his wife, God blessed Harper with a beautiful little girl named Nana.
Harper’s life was an eventful one. He almost drowned several times. When he was two-and-a-half years of age, he fell into a well but was resuscitated by his mother. At the age of twenty-six, he was swept out to sea by a reverse current and barely survived. And at thirty-two he faced death on a leaking ship in the Mediterranean. If anything, these brushes with death simply seemed to confirm John Harper in his zeal for evangelism, which marked him out for the rest of the days of his life.
While pastoring his church in London, Harper continued his fervent and faithful evangelism. In fact, he was such a zealous evangelist that the Moody Church in Chicago asked him to come over to America for a series of meetings. He did, and they went well. A few years later, Moody Church asked him if he would come back again. And so it was that Harper boarded a ship one day with a second-class ticket at Southampton, England, for the voyage to America.
Harper’s wife had died just a few years before, and he had with him his only child, Nana, age six. What happened after this we know mainly from two sources. One is Nana, who died in 1986 at the age of eighty. She remembered being woken up by her father a few nights into their journey. It was about midnight, and he said that the ship they were on had struck an iceberg. Harper told Nana that another ship was just about there to rescue them, but, as a precaution, he was going to put her in a lifeboat with an older cousin, who had accompanied them. As for Harper, he would wait until the other ship arrived.
The rest of the story is a tragedy well known. Little Nana and her cousin were saved. But the ship they were on was the Titanic. The only way we know what happened to John Harper after is because, in a prayer meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, some months later, a young Scotsman stood up in tears and told the extraordinary story of how he was converted. He explained that he had been on the Titanic the night it struck the iceberg. He had clung to a piece of floating debris in the freezing waters. “Suddenly,” he said, “a wave brought a man near, John Harper. He, too, was holding a piece of wreckage.
“He called out, ‘Man, are you saved?’
“‘No, I am not,’ I replied.
“He shouted back, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’
“The waves bore [Harper] away, but a little later, he was washed back beside me again. ‘Are you saved now?’ he called out.
“‘No,’ I answered. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’
“Then losing his hold on the wood, [Harper] sank. And there, alone in the night with two miles of water under me, I trusted Christ as my savior. I am John Harper’s last convert.”1
Now for something completely different—my life story as an evangelist. I am no John Harper. Sometimes I’m a reluctant evangelist. In fact, not only am I sometimes a reluctant evangelist, sometimes I’m no evangelist at all. There have been times of wrestling: “Should I talk to him?” Normally a very forward person, even by American standards, I can get quiet, respectful of the other people’s space. Maybe I’m sitting next to someone on an airplane (in which case I’ve already left that person little space!); maybe it’s someone talking to me about some other matter. It may be a family member I’ve known for years, or a person I’ve never met before; but, whoever it is, the person becomes for me, at that moment, a witness-stopping, excuse-inspiring spiritual challenge.
If there is a time in the future when God reviews all of our missed evangelistic opportunities, I fear that I could cause more than a minor delay in eternity.
If you are anything like me when it comes to evangelism (and many people are), then let me encourage you for picking up this little book at all. It is meant to be an encouragement, a clarification, an instruction, a rebuke, and a challenge all rolled up into several short chapters. My prayer is that because of the time you spend reading this book, more people will hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Isn’t it amazing that we have trouble sharing such wonderful news? Who would mind telling a friend that they held a winning lottery ticket? What doctor wouldn’t want to tell their patient that the tests came back negative (which, of course, is a good thing)? Who wouldn’t be honored by a phone call from the White House saying that the president wanted to meet with him?
So why is it, when we have the best news in the world, that we are so slow to tell it to others? Sometimes our problem may be any one of a long list of excuses. Perhaps we don’t know the gospel well enough—or we don’t think we do. Maybe we think it’s someone else’s job, the work of a minister or a missionary. Maybe we just don’t really know how to go about it. Or perhaps we think we are evangelizing when we really are not. Let’s say that we are faithful with evangelism, but what do we do if the one we are evangelizing gets upset or even gets mad at us? On the other hand, what do we do if it works, if someone “prays the prayer” with us, or at least says that she wants to be a Christian?
And one more question Christians often ask about evangelism: is it okay if I don’t really want to evangelize but simply do it out of guilt? I know it’s not best, but is it at least okay? These are some of the questions we want to answer. In addition to those, I want to look at a few other questions about sharing the good news: Why don’t we evangelize? What is the gospel? Who should evangelize? How should we evangelize? What isn’t evangelism? What should we do after we evangelize? Why should we evangelize? In sum, we discuss in this book the best news that there has ever been, and how we should share that news.
God has established who and how we should evangelize. God himself is at the heart of the evangel—the good news we are spreading. And we should evangelize, ultimately, because of God. All we are doing in this book is connecting some of those dots in our thinking, and, I pray, in our speaking, as well.
Our answers to these questions are not all completely distinct. They weave in and out and one influences the other, but they each provide a separate viewpoint from which to see and understand this great biblical topic of evangelism. To answer these questions, we will look through all the New Testament, from that epicenter of evangelism—the book of Acts—to the Gospels and the letters.
Of course, this little book can’t answer all the questions there are about evangelism (because I can’t answer all the questions!), but my prayer is that by considering them, you’ll find that you can be more understanding and obedient in evangelism. I can’t promise you’ll become another John Harper (I haven’t yet), but we can all become more faithful. I also pray that as you come to evangelize more, you will help your church to develop a culture of evangelism. What do I mean by a culture of evangelism? I mean an expectation that Christians will share the gospel with others, talk about doing that, pray about it, and regularly plan and work together to help each other evangelize. We want evangelism to be normal—in our own lives and in our churches. It’s to this end I’ve written this book, and I pray it’s to this end you’re reading it.