The first in a series of essays on evangelism as part of a course I’ve taken at Grace Theological College.
A Heart for Evangelism: Experience in Evangelism
A Brand New Christian
My early experience of evangelism was characterised by ignorant zeal. As a brand new Christian who knew nothing of formalised discipleship, I ended up living with some Muslims. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that my presentation of the good news focused on the bad news that Mohammed was a false prophet. And perhaps this was more a case of how to lose friends and alienate people. While it seemed they were supportive of my new found faith (and actually challenged me on issues like substance abuse), I gave a poor representation of Christianity and the Christ of Christianity. I had no respect for them as Muslims, often threatening to cook a pork roast in their kitchen under the auspices of Christian liberty. Any relationship that had developed on the occasion of our living in the same apartment seemed to be fractured beyond repair as I surrendered my key emboldened by a police escort.
I thought I could engage in winning the lost by making pot-shots, essentially assaulting unsuspecting wearers of burqa with language I doubt they understood from a skinny white boy they were probably enculturated not to engage. “Jesus doesn’t want you to wear a burqa” was about as close to the gospel as it came in these brief skirmishes. By the grace of God, I felt the Holy Spirit more and more restraining me as He focused on changing my heart as well as my attitude towards people as those made in His image, my understanding of the gospel, and what it meant to announce good news.
A Redefined Role
Ignorant zeal gave way to what I thought was an educated simmer and I began to conclude that my role within the church was to be confined within the church, that is, it’s four walls. I saw myself more a teacher than an evangelist and developed an arrogant concern that professing Christians learn the doctrines to which I had begun to subscribe.
I was climbing the ladder of the inner doctrinal echelon within the church when I remember hearing God speak in such a way so as to knock out all the rungs of the ladder, seeing me falling to the ground, humbled by a reality that I had “forgotten Jesus”. This was the beginning of an ongoing discovery that the good news is caught up with the reality that Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God. That conviction, as the core of the Christian message, became a compelling commitment and lead me to being asked to leave some churches, and deciding to leave others – the litmus test being whether this gospel, this good news of Jesus Christ was being preached, and preached without ceasing.
I was getting opportunity to preach in church even as the rungs were rotting under my falling feet. I began to preach grace, that Jesus was everything – a rare message from the King-James-Only cult. I was finally lead to a church that seemed to share convictions about the abundance of grace and the exclusivism of Jesus and in time given opportunity to preach under the watchful gaze of discerning leaders. I sought to preach Christ and Him crucified – to win and woo both sinners and saints to seek and savour the one who seemed so clearly the subject of every biblical text.
A New Way
Along came William Fay and Ray Comfort. What emerged was a modified Way of the Master approach and passion for conversational evangelism. William Fay taught me to let them do the talking, prompted by gentle, though deliberate, open ended questions about spiritual beliefs. The goal was to win their respect and gain permission to “tell you what I believe”. This William-Fay Five-Step was augmented by Ray Comforts dual concern to prove a Creator, and convince good people that they were lawbreakers subject to the narrowly satiable wrath of the proven Creator. As I cracked the lid on the “And what about Jesus?” question I had in store all along, the animosity, from those with a convincing consciousness of the divine, was exhilarating. The ensuing conflict demonstrated that though seemingly patient, gently asked open ended questions, with timed yet tailored responses, this one-off was no builder of a necessary relationship of trust. Invercargill isn’t a big enough place for the face of smug street preachers, or unresolved animosity to be forgotten. I had, I thought, one chance, and once blown, I would sooner have crossed the road or walked in the other direction than have another go.
A Better Way
Upon moving to Auckland, it seems conversation gave way to compassion – hearing drunken strangers stagger past my house and racing out to offer them a ride home, and then to church the next morning. Or the unconditional offer of assistance to the Crips with the broken down beamer. Or the insistence that I had been slightly overcharged by the sushi lady, explaining my honesty in terms of being a Christian. Or scouring the streets for hitchhikers, even though I wasn’t going their way, cracking out some William Fay as passenger became prisoner to my prodding and left the vehicle with a bible and a phone number should any questions arise from their promised reading of the New Testament. There were no phone calls.
A New Sphere of Service
In relation to my present heart attitude towards evangelism, it is expressed most clearly and consistently within my serving as a preacher. It has been my conviction that the gospel is to be preached in/on every preaching occasion with the awareness that the visible church is made up of the elect (some professing, some yet to profess) as well as the reprobate. With that in mind, is the awareness that as the gospel is preached, it is the power of God unto salvation. What’s more, the quiet confidence that God may very well see fit to use my service as a preacher to effectually (and actually and actively) call those of His children previously lacking profession.
Beyond the safety of the church, I remain apologetically Christian in the sense of always being ready and willing to answer those who ask me about my faith. All of my co-workers know that I identify as a Christian and though I work in the construction industry, I seek to engage by asking the question first of “What does it look like for me to be a Christian in this setting?” Exclusion has only ever been the answer once, when it was suggested visiting the strip clubs as a natural flow on from the company Christmas dinner.
Beyond that (though I consider this level of engagement sits somewhere above half way on an “Actively Involved in Evangelism” register), I am otherwise publically unintentional.
A New Burden
Before reading Barrs and Dickson, I had not considered the discipline of prayer evangelistic in nature. What I mean by that is that I didn’t really have a category for promoting the gospel apart from its proclamation. Furthermore, praying evangelistically hadn’t been a hi-viz in my prayer closet. But having read Barrs and Dickson – who give considerable ink to the idea of promoting the gospel through prayer, I began to do just that. Short and simple – at first based on Matthew 9:35-38.
Then came Saturday. My weekly catch up with Isobel Cochran. We always end our time by praying together. The prompt is never more than “Let’s pray together”. Together, we have been reading a series of books (intended for children but of great value to those who have had a selected exposure to our countries history at school) about the history of New Zealand. The current focus is the early interaction between Maori and the missionaries. As is normal, Isobel started us praying and she prayed specifically for the Maori people of New Zealand, especially in Auckland – that they would encounter the gospel afresh. Then the net was spread further to the vast salad bowl of ethnicities represented in our city. Affirmative sounds and quiet amens came from me and when it was my turn all I could do was echo Isobel and add my rediscovery of Matthew 9:35-38. This, in short, was really encouraging, to know that God would so order things that just when I was rediscovering prayer and/as evangelism, that we should be reading that series of books, followed by that kind of praying.
Similarly, post-sermon conversations with a particular gentleman have lead me to question whether this kind of specific prayer is part of our own gathered worship. Sure, we pray for missionaries – which is great – but prayer as evangelism seems limited to places none of us have been and people none of us have ever met. Besides praying for the logistics of the Light Party and a vague perhaps this will allow us to build contacts, I am not sure we have the boldness or passion to pray in such a way that could mean we’d need to buy more chairs (either for our gathered worship space, or our living rooms).
The question is often about how to approach this at a corporate level with pastoral sensitivity especially when none of my roles include rule in this regard. Mentioning Matthew 9:35-38 doesn’t quite fit prayer requests for knees and nieces and next week’s meeting.
In terms of written interaction with Barrs, Dickson, and Stott – I start with Stott, exploring just a few of his statements.
Stott suggests “In evangelism too we need incentives, for evangelism is difficult and dangerous work.” He then outlines several incentives starting with “plain obedience… since the call of God is to share in His own mission in the world.” He then says, “loving concern is the second.” (p19). The question for me then is, am I sufficiently motivated by the often used adage “love God, love others”? Sometimes it can seem that being involved in evangelism is an optional extra rather than a matter of obedience to the commissioning of God and a basic expression of neighbour love. I think there are graceless ways of trying to stress these motives but the way Stott frames it, makes it a matter of the heart. He makes it a question of “Is our love for God (expressed in obedience) and neighbour of a quality that generates a sacrifice of the ease and safety of not doing evangelism?”
A New Interpretation
How do these statements from Stott interpret my early experience? Well firstly, I am not sure my early efforts were characterised by love for neighbour. It wasn’t that I was so compelled that “God so loved the people on the street” and so I did to. Rather, it was almost a case of I have something to tell you with the emphasis being on what I had discovered.
In addition to praying that the Lord of the Harvest would raise up labourers, Jerram Barrs suggests praying “for the work of the Spirit in the hearts and minds of those around us.” This echoes an old quote from E.M. Bounds “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.” While I am not so sure the Spirit is bound by who has and hasn’t been prayed for prior to evangelistic engagement (whether generally in terms of “Let who I speak to today have an open heart and mind” or for a specific individual), the Spirit does seem to work in the heart of those doing the praying to the end that they are compelled by a deeper neighbour love. Similarly, we can be confident that the Spirit really does work in response to our prayers, preparing hearts and minds for the reception (and germination) of gospel seed.
“The vital link between the masses who need to hear the gospel and the few who are sent out to preach the gospel is the whole company of disciples praying for the work of the gospel.” I am not in total agreement with John Dickson at this point. Perhaps it is a quarrel over words, but I would argue that the ideal is not a “few who are sent out”. While I recognise that there are people that are specifically gifted in proclaiming the gospel, I would argue that more than we would readily admit are called to incorporate intentional gospel proclamation within a life dedicated to gospel promotion. Even so, this is a reminder to pray that those specially gifted would be identified, and even set apart for intentional, even vocational gospel proclamation in a way that is perhaps distinct from pastoral ministry.
Barrs, J. (2001). The Heart of Evangelism. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
Comfort, R. (2006). The Way of the Master. Bridge-Logos Publishers.
Dickson, J. (2005). Promoting the Gospel: The Whole of life for the Cause of Christ. Sydney: Aquila Press.
Fay, W. (1999). Share Jesus Without Fear. B&H Books.
Stott, J. (1967). Our Guilty Silence. Hodder & Stoughton.
 (Stott, 1967) 17
 (Stott, 1967) 18
 (Stott, 1967) 19
 Expressed by Jesus in the words of Mark 12:30-31
 (Barrs, 2001) 49
 Bounds, E.M Power Through Prayer (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/558571-talking-to-men-for-god-is-a-great-thing-but retrieved 11/04/16)
 (Dickson, 2005) 56
 Dickson deals with the proclamation/promotion distinction in his introduction (pp 9-17)