Internet Monk wrote an article recently about the state of evangelism in the church, especially the Southern Baptist Convention. In it he points out that for all our efforts as a denomination, the canned presentations, training programs, “sure-fire” evangelism tools and the rest have been, at best, fruitless, and at worst, less a reflection of biblical disciple-making and more a demonstration of how various methodologies to present the truth can morph into badly designed marketing schemes, product placements, and used car pitches.
In my thirty-three years as a card-carrying member of the local Baptist congregation, and by extenuation, of the Southern Baptist Convention, I haven’t grown enough fingers and toes to count the number of different “solutions” there have been to the problem of personal evangelism (the problem being that persons don’t evangelize). Throw in the “Four Spiritual Laws” and other offerings by denominations and para-church groups other than the SBC, and the number of potential failures becomes exponential.
Not that there is anything wrong with trying. We have at least recognized for years that the average church member does not talk about his faith, at least to those who don’t already have it. All of these plans are attempts to address that issue.
I recall one summer when I learned, among other things, to evangelize “cold turkey”: to simply walk up to a total stranger and share the gospel. No one responded favorably to me, probably because I didn’t really care about anyone I spoke to. All I was concerned about was not getting pummeled with my own gospel tract and telling my disciple leader I had fulfilled my obligation. Don’t judge me just yet…you have likely done the same thing.
So I have been thinking about why these gospel-presentation-programs (“faith-in-a-box”) don’t seem to work, and why they don’t seem to result in lasting converts. It seems to come down to two things: 1) we don’t practice evangelizing our captive audience, and 2) we don’t love people.
Captive Audience. Who is this captive audience for the church? Why, our children and our congregations, that’s who. How many hapless souls have trudged through yet another faith-in-a-box program guaranteed to fire up their evangelistic fervor and to result in hordes of teeming disciples, when they have yet to even share the gospel with their own children? And what does it say to our little darlings that mom and dad are sticking them with a babysitter or in the nursery again to go visit strangers and share the gospel, when they haven’t taken the time to explain it to their own kids?
Believe me, it is tough to explain spiritual truth to the ones who are around you the most, the ones who see you curse when you slam your finger in the door, see you blow your top when you find soggy cereal in your armchair, or see you treat your spouse like a doormat. And it’s even tougher when parents don’t understand spiritual truth themselves. But if parents are able to consistently talk to their kids about spiritual matters, at every age, in every circumstance, day in and day out, then those parents will be able to talk about spiritual matters with anyone they come across.
But why, you say, do we need to evangelize our congregations? Evidence shows that perhaps as much as fifty percent of the average congregation is not saved. (Thom Rainer has several books that treat this subject, which is where this figure comes from. See, e.g., Simple Church and Essential Church; George Barna also has some telling statistics.) Too much of our programming in churches assumes that everyone present is saved, and they just need to be told how to live well. But for one who has not heard the gospel, who does not understand it, or who has not been enlightened by God, ‘living well’ translates to a salvation by works. Besides, even believers who have heard the gospel and who have been converted still need to hear the gospel, which is both the power of salvation and the power of sanctification. Our congregations need evangelizing just as much as the ‘sinners’ do.
Loving People. “Love” has become such a manipulated concept that it is almost meaningless to speak of loving people. Today “love” means you don’t criticize, don’t correct, don’t discipline, that you always say “I’m fine”, always agree, and never remove that creepy smile from your face. But biblical love is something entirely different.
One thing we frequently miss when we, as Christians, speak of “loving people,” is that to do so we must, first, SEE people. For most of us, customarily our day is filled with nameless others constantly making life difficult. Other motorists cut us off and make us late. Cashiers are slow and give the wrong change. Pedestrians smell and take up the whole sidewalk. Even other believers get our parking spot, sit in our pew, and threaten our standing in the church.
It is an amazing phenomenon that when you go through your day with your head down, avoiding glances, only looking up and around long enough to swipe your credit card at the gas pump or the checkout lane, no one speaks to you. In fact, you don’t even ‘see’ other people, but only impediments to your speedy return home to watch American Idol. Yet when we actually consider the people we encounter as people, look them in the eye, and have a genuine interest in them, even if only for the brief minutes that we are putting our groceries on the conveyor belt, people will tell you all manner of things about themselves. It is these things that people will tell you about themselves that give us opportunity to be interested in them, to speak truth into their situation, and, if appropriate, to share the gospel to that one in whom we have only just recently developed genuine interest.
Where to start? How about our neighbors. They are not simply the ones on the other side of your privacy fence, whose guests block your driveway, whose dog goes in your yard, whose teenager blasts music and plays basketball in the driveway too late, or who you hope doesn’t discover that it was you that took his newspaper that time. Our neighbors are the ones who see us leave for church every Sunday – and possibly on Wednesday – and who wonder why we have never invited them, or even introduced ourselves, or discussed important matters of the world over – or through – that privacy fence. Our neighbors wonder why we are so willing to discuss our golf handicap, stock tips, gas prices, parenting problems, and football scores but never mention what should be the most important aspect of our lives.
So, ‘cold turkey’ evangelism and canned presentations of the gospel can be beneficial, sometimes. But the primary reason that they usually are not is that the recipients know that the one peddling the gospel product to them is only interested in the sale. Instead, when we actually ‘see’ people around us, and are genuinely interested in them, we might actually love them in the way that recognizes their spiritual plight and prompts us to share with them the truth of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.