Not to throw cold water on what the Holy Spirit is doing and how he is moving here in the United States, but as I mentioned in a previous post, the actual number of evangelical Christians in America is relatively small and the best research on the subject confirms this. According to Brad Waggoner (cited in John Dickerson’s 2013 book The Great Evangelical Recession), even smaller is the number of Christians who regularly share the gospel with people who do not know Jesus. That got me to thinking as to why that might be.
Many who do not know Him yet are not conscious of it but Jesus, the Hound of Heaven, IS actively pursuing them. Although the gospel message may at first sound like fantastical silliness to those who do not believe, a seed is planted when it is proclaimed and one day there will be a harvest. History is filled with “kicking and screaming” people whom God dragged (via an evangelist of some kind) before the throne of grace, and many of them became great saints and pillars of faith. St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis are but two that immediately come to mind. But if the good news is never proclaimed and shared, people will never know. The Great Commission does not contain an opt-out clause; we must make disciples. We must evangelize.
So where are the evangelists these days? And why are evangelical Christians so reluctant to share? I say ‘we’ because while some may have more of a natural grace for it, from time to time I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking that evangelizing just isn’t my thing. That’s not true at all. Every single Christian is an ambassador of the Kingdom and can and should share his or her faith. So why don’t we? Here are 7 of my observations.
- We are afraid of man. This is probably the biggest one. Our faith is a stumbling block, it is utter foolishness to those who are perishing. The Bible says as much. It is also the power of God for those being saved (1 Cor. 1:18). And when that foolishness is proclaimed it becomes the power unto salvation. As it is declared the Holy Spirit moves and backs up the proclamation of the gospel, doing things in the unseen realm as he plows the soil of hungry hearts. Some will accept Jesus; others will reject Him. We do not know who will and who will not. Mysterious indeed is the process of how it all happens but the important truth to remember here is that people ARE more ready and willing to hear the gospel than what fear will tell you. And fear is not from God. Whether they are aware of it or not, everyone desires a King like Jesus for He is the Desire of Nations. Far too often the Lord has been misrepresented, but Jesus Christ remains the same yesterday, today, and forever, and nothing, not even a gnarly religious wound, is too difficult for him to overcome. Not to be trite here, but one encounter with the living God can turn things on a dime, and Christians owe people an encounter with Jesus. Bottom line, fear is a liar.
- We lack a community of discipleship that actively encourages and facilitates evangelism. Pardon the millennial-speak here for a moment but as one who is well aware that my generation is leaving church in droves, I can attest that a major gripe several friends of mine who have left was not because they rejected Jesus or were disaffected by certain teachings but it was because they felt disconnected from their church and were frustrated with its calcified, bureaucratic structures. So they just checked out and found community elsewhere at the gym or at coffee shops. I don’t agree with that reasoning at all but I do get the cry for real community. Evangelism must be done in community and be coupled with discipleship. And we also must do community well. The last thing that God our Father wants is for his people to share the good news of his coming to earth as the Son with others, and for them to then have no home and no spiritual family. Outside of that context, all evangelism does is create more orphans, and that orphan spirit is the very thing from which we all need to be rescued.
- We do not want to speak in Christian-ese and we struggle to know what language to use. Evangelical Christians have an unfortunate tendency to talk in ways that do not compute at all in modern society. We may as well be speaking Urdu with a Brooklyn accent. In a culture that is more biblically illiterate than ever, when believers employ evangelical-ish lingo and phrases that are straight out of the Scripture, people look at you like you have four heads. I know this because I’ve done it. But it does not have to be this way. We need to learn how to tell stories and invite others into the Great Story that God himself is telling. Jesus was the master storyteller and it is high time we start learning from him and winsomely communicate the gospel in a forthright, culturally relevant manner. And we need not shrink back from its politically incorrect truth claims.
- We sometimes think of evangelism as a one-time event instead of a process that occurs inside of relationships over time. Not every one has a come-to-Jesus moment they can point to with date and time precision; for most it is a long process of gradually learning to trust the Lord. People are not catechized (sorry for the Christian-ese word there) in one fell swoop. What it means to put ones trust in Jesus cannot be boiled down to a few sentences and a list of theologically sound doctrines and beliefs. For those outside of the Christian faith, learning to trust in Christ most often takes place as they start to gain trust in an actual Christian. And a Christian who regularly speaks about what it means to follow Jesus and actively ministers to people like Jesus did is going to live a life that exemplifies bits and pieces of the gospel, inspire questions and more opportunities to witness, where one can then fill in the gaps and tell the whole story. You might call this being “naturally supernatural”.
- We think good works are enough. This is a deception. Good deeds are very necessary but if feeding the poor and clothing the naked replace the gospel message the church is indistinguishable from a secular humanitarian NGO or civic group that does honorable work in the community. For all the talk of “social justice”, a redundant phrase that has always annoyed me because justice is inherently social, no amount of meeting physical needs in society and volunteerism can transform the hearts of men and women separated from God. That takes Jesus. From a gospel standpoint, faith without deeds is worthless. Deeds without faith is no better.
- We have seen it done badly and we don’t want to be “one of those Christians”. While I understand the disgust for the salesman-proselytizer approach to evangelism–and I know I just advocated that we become better communicators and learn from the Storyteller–we do need to get over this because the truth is that God can use anything, including clumsy presentations of the gospel. If it comes from a sincere place the anointing of the Spirit will be on it. People can tell when you are real and millennials in particular have pretty decent BS detectors. I wish more of us had the sparkling brilliance of apologists like Dr. Ravi Zacharias, Dr. William Lane Craig, and Dr. J.P. Moreland (look these guys up, they’re all splendidly intelligent), but we don’t, and that is OK! Our God can use the most foolish things to confound the wise and the weak to shame the strong, and you never know just how your foolish-sounding testimony will mark another individual who has not yet met him. Pete Grieg, former director of prayer at Holy Trinity-Brompton Anglican Church in London (where the popular Alpha course was conceived), once shared a story of how his mother and a group of her lady friends became concerned about the lost goth kids who were doing drugs and causing trouble in the local park. So, after praying for them, they went to the park with their guitars and started playing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” as an outreach. I kid you not. That was their evangelism strategy. You want to guess what happened? With tears running down their faces, some of the drug-dealing goth kids started opening up to these 70-year old women. The Holy Spirit opened doors for them to minister to and share the gospel with them. We don’t have to be cool, just obedient and willing. God can use absolutely anything.
- We don’t really know Jesus all that well. This last one may offend but so be it. Jesus did not endure the agony of the cross so we could sit around and do church. He inaugurated a Kingdom in which we are invited to participate in the restoration and reconciliation of all things. He has bestowed on us the power of his name, given us his mind, and filled us with the Holy Spirit. We do not realize what we have received. God made provision in Jesus for us to know him. We get to live life in partnership with the God of the Universe! Want to know what God looks like? Look at Jesus. We’re to look like him too and if we are too shy to invite others to know him than I would humbly offer that we need to start rediscovering who he is. A man or woman consumed by the love of Jesus Christ can look at people separated from God and treat them as though they never were. Such is the supreme excellence of knowing a King who by example voluntarily laid everything down, including his very life in the most grisly form of death known to mankind, for love. We have the opportunity to do likewise. The question becomes: how can we not share?
- Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/gospel-reading-1167792