Obstacles to Evangelism

Obstacles to Evangelism

This essay is the third and final in a series of essays on evangelism put together in the course of my own study on the topic at Grace Theological College.

Obstacles to Evangelism

Brendon Ward

This essay seeks to address several barriers to evangelism.  Firstly, I consider the barrier imposed by the false dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Secondly, I look at barriers within ourselves including a sense of guilt, a lack of confidence, and the reality of over commitment.  Thirdly, the issue of pluralism and its impact on the church’s influence.

Evangelism and/or Social Responsibility?

It is extraordinary… that controversy should have blown up over the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility.[1]

Throughout my involvement with the pro-life movement in New Zealand, I have had to wrestle with the question of whether this is a distraction from whatever call God has placed on my life regarding vocational gospel ministry.  While I affirm the uniqueness of the ministry of God’s Word through public, private, and personal ministry of it, the idea that the church is built up as a witness to the world by working on the interior only is bogus.

Sadly, it seems within Protestantism, being engaged in the culture, to build a culture of life is treated like an optional extra.  Engagement seems to be rather characterised by the occasional skirmish into enemy territory, ever with the bastion of the church castle as a safe place into which the wounded solider of Christ can scurry for respite or retirement.

It is sadly still the case that some believe that Christians do not have social responsibility in this world but only a commission to evangelize those who have not heard the gospel.[2]

I’ve made reference to the locality of my local church and the seemingly untapped opportunities that lay on our doorstep.  My thinking is reflected in what I propose would be a great way to begin knocking on those doors.  But I am curious, what is the corporate consensus on our responsibility to those people, in families, who are the faces behind those doors?  Are we simply in a position where the only thing we have to offer is the message that they’re each sinful, in need of a saviour from those sins?  Or could it be that the gospel is bigger than that?

Could it be that “Social activity was said to be both a consequence of and a bridge to evangelism, and indeed the two were declared to be partners. Besides, they are united by the gospel. “For the gospel is the root, of which both evangelism and social responsibility are the fruits.””[3]

Could it be that, apart from independency from the mission of the church, offering hope to families whose definition of marriage has been underdeveloped, perverted, and even redefined by democratically elected governments, is actually an outworking of the gospel?

Could it be that an offer of such hope is the natural consequence of a robust understanding of and faithful commitment to the gospel?

As suggested by Stott, we confront this false-dichotomy through a bigger vision of who God[4] is as the God of Genesis 1 and not just of Genesis 3.  We confront this by understanding that man[5], as image of God, has inherent worth, and is worthy of the same common graces as those in church.  We confront this by understanding that Jesus[6] came to inaugurate a redemption that is bigger than the forgiveness of sin and a ticket to heaven.  We confront this by understanding that soteriology is John 3 AND Romans 8[7].  We confront this by understanding that “The church is the only cooperative society that exists for the benefit of non-members.”[8]

Surely the following is a healthy outworking of our robust theological convictions: “…each local church (at least of any size) can and should get involved in as many areas as possible, through its groups.”[9]

Barriers within ourselves

Jesus and His apostles have called every one of us who knows Jesus Christ to the task of reaching out to those around us. However, if we are honest we will have to admit that the great majority of us find this calling very difficult, if not almost impossible.[10]

To the church’s discredit, Jerram Barrs identifies pulpit imposed guilt as an evangelistic barrier.  He suggests that congregants cringe the notification of such topic focused sermons and may even excuse themselves physically or simply tune out.

He argues that, “Pastors can easily and with the best of intentions fall into the trap of berating their congregations with commands to evangelize or illustrations about evangelism that seek to motivate by creating the maximum amount of guilt in those who hear.”[11]  He suggests that such disingenuous approaches to stirring up God’s people to love and good works is at odds with the mission of Jesus to set people free, even from a guilt-conscious driven motif for doing good.

The remedy to this of course, is for preachers to become freshly acquainted with the grace of God that brings salvation[12].  Such grace, rather than appeals to trying harder to do better, teaches a community of grace how to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age.  Surely the mission of God communicated to the people of God is characteristic of a godly life, without being so black and white as to what this looks like in practice.  The passage in question (Titus 2:11-14) is deeply rooted in the gospel itself as it is book ended by gospel indicatives, speaking of “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Another internal wall is our lack of confidence in our ability to present the Gospel clearly or to answer the challenges that people might put forward against the Christian message.[13]

This, I have seen even in my own experience, seems to be one of the greatest barriers within ourselves.  Great in its constraining power over against what could be termed the absence of practical solutions.  While it could be argued that at its root is the fear of man, Barr’s is perhaps somewhat more charitable when he acknowledges the reality of “our anxiety and nervousness about our abilities, our embarrassment, our fear, even our sense of shame when we try to tell someone what it means to us to be a Christian.”[14]  Such honest assessment, Barrs argues, should not be met by some kind of claim of victory over it, but a glad and humble acknowledgement that I am weak but He is strong.

He further suggests that “Knowing our own fears and weakness is the starting place for all growth, because this knowledge drives us to prayer for ourselves and requires us to acknowledge to others that we are not at all adequate for the tasks to which God has called us.”[15]

We may also feel walls of inner anxiety about overcommitting ourselves or wanting to avoid having our privacy and personal space invaded by strangers we really don’t desire to know. Many of us are already in over our heads with too many church activities.[16]

Barr’s suggest that such over commitment prevents the church members at large from engaging non-church friends, families, and others.  As a remedy it’s like a call from a doing-focus to a being-focus.  He suggests, “Perhaps we need to cut out some of the activities, even go to fewer services and Bible studies, so we have time to become good friends with a few people who are not believers.”[17]  Having time to become good friends with a few people who are not believers certainly is being orientated.  This also does justice to the idea that evangelism is not about method, but rather a consistent pattern of life.

Pluralism and Influence

Western Christians find themselves increasingly out of step with a post-Christian society.[18]

Stott hints at a decline in the church’s overall influence as he also suggests a decline in church membership.  While he is hopeful that in certain denominations there is a resurgence in attendance, he, with candour admits that attendance and membership are not synonymous.

As church membership declines, Stott argues that secularism fills in the gaps.  He also suggests that liberalised immigration policy has led to an increase of diverse religious opinion, option, and competition in the marketplace of ideas.

This can be seen in a New Zealand context especially when it is learned that many Christians seeking asylum from Islamic countries are denied their request because they are systematically miss-represented by their Muslim interpreters[19].  The sinister side of immigration aside, the influx of people from the Indian subcontinent brings with it religion native to that area.  I do by no means advocate an environment of religious intolerance, but am conscious that the diversity of opinions does make the church’s job that much harder.

Our world, particularly the West, has shifted on its axis and has in many respects moved from being modern to postmodern.[20]

This shift, Stott describes as a move from conviction that humanity had the answers to life’s problems to a situation characterised by uncertainty and the adage that no one can really know anything for certain.

The impact this has on evangelism is that the gospel contains various truth-claims and is in itself a truth-claim.  Along with post-modernisms rejection of both meta-narrative and objective reality, the sceptic can be heard responding to the gospel by asking “How do you know?”  Rather than this being an easy out, the postmodern is presenting an epistemological crisis.

“In such a society Christianity cannot back down on its essential claim that God has revealed the truth through Christ and that this truth is what the late Francis Schaeffer used to call ‘true truth’.  God’s revelation in Christ is at the heart of the gospel.  It is a non-negotiable.”[21]  For the Christian, this revelation is the meta-narrative through which sense is made of the world.  Yet in a post-modern world, it is an offensive weapon that suggests the rejection of absolutes is erroneous.  Rather than being cause for despair, Stott suggests that “our postmodern society provides creative challenges for Christian witness which are very positive… we must rethink the way we conduct mission for the twenty-first century.”[22]  Similarly, the call to a proper confidence in the gospel, “neither imposing it on others nor being timid in holding to its truth.”[23]

So, in the light of pluralism in the form of growing secularism, diversity in the marketplace of ideas, or post modernism, how can the church respond?

Stott rejects the extremes of imposition and the laissez-faire approach.   While making reference to historical examples of the church’s imposition, he cites contemporary examples by suggesting “You cannot force people to believe what they do not want to believe or practice what they do not want to practice.  Similarly, to image today that we can force Christian convictions and standards on Europe (for example) is totally unrealistic.”[24]  In terms of the laissez-faire approach Stott argues that “What has happened is that true tolerance, which respects the views of others while disagreeing with them, has become a false or empty tolerance, which does not bother to engage and amounts to indifference.”[25]

Stott offers a third option:

Better than the extremes of imposition and laissez-faire is the strategy of persuasion by argument. This is the way the Christian mind advocates, for it arises naturally from the biblical doctrines of God and human beings.[26]

In persuasion tolerance is characterised by a “respect [for] men and women made in God’s image.”[27]  In addition, such evangelists are called to “seek justice, hate injustice, care for the needy, guard the dignity of work, recognize the necessity of rest, maintain the sanctity of marriage, be zealous for the honour of Jesus Christ and long that every knee will do homage to him and every tongue confess him.”[28]

Driven by such passions Christians “should seek to educate the public conscience to know and desire the will of God.  The church should seek to be the conscience of the nation.  We cannot impose God’s will be legislation, neither can we convince people of it merely by biblical quotation.”[29] Rather than these authority from above approaches, Stott champions an authority from below in which “the intrinsic truth and value of a thing which is self-evident and, therefore, self-authenticating.”[30]  I suspect by his injunction to Christian ethic in action, Stott is citing examples of the truths self-evidence and authentication.

Insofar as this concerns evangelism Stott says “we should neither try to force people to believe the gospel, nor remain silent as if we were indifferent to their response, nor rely exclusively on dogmatic proclamation of biblical texts… but rather, like the apostles, we should reason with people from both nature and Scripture, commending God’s gospel to them by rational arguments.”[31] Again, the call for Christian to live out biblical ethics makes gospel commendation substantial rather than dogmatic.

In other papers, I have alluded to the mission field that our church is geographically situated.  The Christian School and Preschool represent families whose parents hold to secular, religious, and postmodern presuppositions that run contrary to the truth of God revealed in Christ.  If we are to reach these families, it is not going to be by imposing our beliefs (even on their children), or tolerating their ideologies as equally valid.  Rather, by living out and presenting Christian ethics that lay at the root of who we are as human persons.  That is, concerned about justice and injustice, caring when it comes to the needy and promotion of industry, conscious of the struggles of marriage and parenting.  With respect to all these things we find common ground with our non-Christian parents whose own presuppositions have answers (with varying degrees of ambiguity) that find counterpart in the gospel of Jesus.  Through a presentation of Christian perspective on all these things it will be demonstrated that a biblical worldview is comprehensive, well considered, and represents a caring, and concerned conscience for human persons in community.


[1] Issues, p. 23

[2] Issues, p. 24

[3] Issues, p. 32

[4] New Issues, p. 19

[5] New Issues, p. 22

[6] New Issues, p. 26

[7] New Issues, p. 27

[8] New Issues, p. 29

[9] Issues, p. 45

[10] Barrs, p. 129

[11] Barrs, pp. 129-130

[12] Titus 2:11-14

[13] Barrs, p. 130

[14] Barrs, p. 131

[15] Barrs, p. 131

[16] Barrs, p. 133

[17] Barrs, p. 133

[18] Issues, p. 71

[19] Voice of the Martyrs Asif Mall recently gave a presentation to suggest that this is happening in New Zealand, with a number of disaffected Pakistani Christians being sent back to Pakistan despite having legitimate cause for seeking asylum.  He suggested that Pakistani Muslims seek asylum when no need exists and are being granted their request on account of their disingenuous representatives.

[20] Issues, p. 73-74

[21] Issues, 73-74

[22] Issues, 73-74

[23] Issues, 74

[24] Issues, 75

[25] Issues, 76

[26] Issues, 77

[27] Issues, 78

[28] Issues, 78

[29] Issues, p 79

[30] Issues, p 79

[31] Issues, p 79

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