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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Confessions of a Failed Evangelical

December 30, 2012

I begin with the premise that there is urgency in the task of evangelism.  I can think of no worse condition for a human being than to be alienated from God, and I believe all people are sinners and sin cuts us off from God completely.  The solution for sin, which make relationship with God impossible, is the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Many will reduce the gospel to Jesus dying on the cross.  I see his work of salvation in his life and words, and in his death and resurrection.  Without the resurrection, the death on the cross is empty.

But he did rise.  He did conquer the greatest enemies – Satan, sin, and death.  To be protected from the enemy, to be free from the damning effects of sin, and to be assured that we will be resurrected and have eternal life, we need Jesus.  He is God in the flesh, by him all that we know was created, he is the eternal one, and he is the way, the truth, and the life.  All people need Jesus.

I offer this simple definition.  Evangelism is helping people meet Jesus as Savior and Lord.  In upcoming weeks, I will say more about why as we come to be saved from sin and by Jesus, it is just as important that we come to follow Jesus as master and Lord.  Evangelism is helping people come to Jesus. 

It is the work of Christianity.  Paul writes in 2nd Timothy, “In the presence of … Christ Jesus, … and in view of his coming and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you; proclaim the message; be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (from v. 1, 2).  Why did he think this so important?  He writes in chapter 3,

in the last days distressing times will come.2For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,3inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good,4treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,5holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power (v.1b-5).

And in chapter 4,

3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.


Who are the people who not only don’t have a relationship with God, but don’t even want to?  Who are those who don’t believe there is a God at all?  Who are they that are hostile to Christians and Christianity?  I don’t know who they are in your life.  In my life, they are uncles and cousins, people I have loved my entire life.  They are some of my closest high school and college friends.  They are neighbors, the parents of my son’s friends.  These people I care about deeply are the ones who are going through their lives with no relationship with God.  They don’t know the love of Jesus.  They don’t know they can turn to him for purpose in their lives.  They don’t know he rejoices when they become parents or when they graduate.  They don’t realize they have a heavenly Father who delights in them.  They don’t know that when life gets really hard they can turn to him.

On top of that, like me, they are mortals.  Like every person, these that I care about are one day closer to their own deaths each time they wake up in the morning.  Unless there is some evangelistic intervention, they will go into eternity without a relationship with God.  They will go to judgment day without Jesus covering their sins.  They will face judgment and then a godless eternity.  That is what is at stake. 

I grew up in a Baptist church that taught that people who did not know Jesus were lost and hell-bound. From what I have said, it’s clear I still believe this and it leads to the question: how do people go from being lost to being saved?  This is a New Testament issue. 

From Romans 10, beginning in vers 13.

13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”16But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.


And also of Matthew 28:18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


These passages make it clear and the church in which I was raised reinforced this message. We must go out and share the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

To be Christian is to be evangelistic. I don't believe there are non-evangelical Christians. However, I do see a few problems with the evangelism teaching I received.

First, we were told what to do, but not taught how to do it. Go share Jesus. OK, how do I do it? If technique was taught, I sure did not hear it. We were sent off on a mission but not equipped for that mission. In my life, trying to live out the lessons I received at church, I found myself in conversations about faith with people outside the umbrella of church, and often they were far more prepared for those conversations than me.

A second problem with the teaching I received on evangelism is I did not see it modeled in the church. The people who taught the lessons were, at least when I saw them, with other Christians. Go share Jesus with unbelievers. But I only ever saw the adults who gave that instruction when they were with other Christians.  I did not really see effective evangelism.  I had no model to copy.

No practical equipping. No good modeling. A third problem is one I have discovered more recently. What we were taught did not exactly match up with what the New Testament emphasizes.  I have heard many pastors definitively state that nothing is more important than getting people out of Hell and into Heaven.  This idea has a common-sense feel about it.  If Hell is unending torment, then it is the worst possible conclusion for any soul.  No matter what else happens in someone’s life, it is crucial that we Christians do whatever we can to keep them out of Hell.

Though this seems to make sense, it is a flawed approach.  Recall the passage we began with, 2 Timothy 4.  This chapter says nothing about Hell.  Neither do Romans 10 or Matthew 28, passages cited earlier.  In Romans evangelism is urged because unbelievers need prayer but don’t know God, so cannot pray.  In Matthew the motivation is obedience.  We go because Jesus is sending us.  In 2nd Timothy, we are urged to evangelize because people have “itching ears” (v3) full of false teaching.  They cannot know God because their minds are clouded with false doctrines.

To help people pray; to obey Jesus; to help people meet the real God and move away from false teachings: these are some New Testament reasons for evangelism.  Going to Heaven and staying out of Hell is part of evangelism, but I was taught that it is 95% of evangelism.  The Bible does support such an unbalanced approach.

So with no real equipping, no role models, and a skewed, limited view of what it is to share Jesus, I entered college, then seminary, then ministry and adulthood.  I was in a terrible place.  I did not know how to do evangelism.  I did not know fully what evangelism is.  Yet as the pastor, I was supposed to motivate the church to do evangelism and to show them how!

I won’t bore you with all my mistakes, just two of the glaring ones.  The first involves one of my best high school friends.  In our first year out of college, we were both back in Roanoke, Virginia where we had gone to high school. 

My friend wasn’t really a church-guy.  He would come once in a while, but walking with Jesus was not a driving force in his life.  I am not sure what role Jesus played for him back then, and 20 years later, I am still unsure about that.

Here’s what I did with my friend.  I went over to his house to play video-game football.  It was the 1992 version of Madden or something that preceded Madden.  Anyway, we’re playing the video game and arguing about the NFL like we always did.  All of sudden, I said, “Hey, I have to talk to you about something.”  And I whipped a gospel tract out of my back pocket and took him through it, step-by-step.  This conversation had the potential for unbelievable awkwardness because I didn’t prep him at all for what was coming and it was way out of the ordinairy.

What prevented it from falling apart completely is how easy-going my friend his.  He patiently listened, nodded his head in a show of interest.  When I was done I gave him the tract and he read it again without my commentary.  He did not ask any questions.  I did not push him to respond in one way or another.  And within a few minutes we were back to the game.

I can definitely say I clearly presented the gospel to my friend.  There is no mistaking that the tract which I read to him, with explanation, and then he read again, called for the reader (him) to make the decision to pray to receive Christ.  Some of you might think me a stumbling goof for forcing such a formulaic approach into a situation where it did not fit.  Others may commend me for using the tract but think me a coward for not pressing my friend to respond on the spot.

            All I can conclude about the episode is that he heard the gospel.  Since then he has heard me preach sermons.  We are still best of friends.  I still do not know where he stands with God. 

            Here is a second example from my own life, one that happened in completely different circumstances with completely different people.  I was a pastor, 30 years old.  I was rooming with some guys in Alexandria, Virginia, one a former college roommate and a really dedicated Christ follower.  Another of our college friends came to visit us.  Of course Alexandria, – that’s the Washington DC area.  Our friend was coming to participate in the national Gay pride march.  That he stayed with us while coming for that event was momentous.  He was coming out of the closet to me and my roommate.

            When we had all been in college together, we did not know he was gay.  We played rugby together.  We did 3 and 4-mile runs every morning together.  We were all in the bass section of the touring choir together.  I thought I really knew this guy well. 

            So there we all are at my apartment, reunited after being out of college 8 years, and our friend is explaining his sexuality and why homosexuality for him was affirming and wonderful.  As he talked I listened, and when he stopped, I said, “All those things you’re saying, I get that from Jesus.”  What I said was totally true – completely true.  The timing of it was terrible.  This guy needed to know his Christian friends wouldn’t judge him.  He needed to know we would love him.  What I communicated was hey, you’re OK if you follow Jesus, like I do. 

My intent was for my friend to know the Lord.  But my words did not communicate my intent because I had not earned the right to speak my piece.  Not with him anyway.  He would not have been able to hear me talk about Jesus unless he knew I was a safe person.  He was sharing something totally new in our friendship.  In other contexts, he had suffered from cruel words spoken by Christians.  He needed to know his Christian friends would love him.  By going with Jesus language so abruptly and bluntly, I lost the opportunity to actually share Jesus with my friend.   I did not say the wrong thing.  I said the right thing at the wrong time. 

I still see that friend once in a while.  Whenever I do, I try to be a good listener.  But something changed that day that we talked.  It was already changing as he was growing into honesty about his orientation.  But the change became stark when he looked to me for safety and friendship, and I said, “Jesus.”  I could see it in his eyes immediately.  When I said “Jesus,” he did not hear the name of one who loved him unconditionally.  He heard me judging him.  I needed to show Jesus-love first.  Had I done that, I think I would have had a better chance at sharing Jesus’ name and the salvation Jesus offers. 

These evangelistic attempts are not failures because of the response of my two friends.  Success or failure in evangelism is not determined by whether or not the unbeliever becomes a Christ-follower.  We have no control over that.  The Holy Spirit ultimately must speak and the Spirit speaks on the Spirit’s time table, not ours.  When the Spirit speaks, and I personally believe the Holy Spirit speaks to all people many times in their lives, then the person has to respond in faith or respond by rejecting God and rejecting faith.  We cannot control the Holy Spirit’s initiative or the person’s response.

My two examples are failures because I was not artful or tactful or patient in setting the circumstances.  In my eagerness to do my evangelistic duty, I failed to see how complicated this entire business is.  With my video-football playing buddy, I needed to press our conversations to where they were about matters that go deeper than who will win, the Redskins or the Cowboys.  I needed to get him talking about things that matter at the heart level.  Then, when he talked, I needed to listen.

My friend from college was already at the heart level.  He was already talking.  I needed to listen.  I needed to spend a lot of time listening compassionately and prayerfully. 

In both cases, listening was the key.  This will be a central teaching in this series on evangelism.  We might even call it “listening evangelism.”  Of course it cannot be only listening.  We aren’t therapists.  We are disciples of Jesus Christ and we want to help our unchurched, unbelieving friends to become not only saved, but passionately devoted followers of Jesus.  We most certainly need to speak the Gospel.  But not first.  Speaking cannot be where we start because our friends won’t hear a thing we say if we aren’t safe and trustworthy. 

The unbelieving world expects the church to be self-righteous and judgmental.  We have to shock the world with our love.   Paul says in 2nd Timothy 4:2, “be persistent … with utmost patience in teaching.”  This is not soft evangelism.  This is evangelism that I think will actually gain a hearing.  We don’t just want to tell people that Jesus saves.  We want them to listen when we say Jesus saves.  I have too many stories of my own failure to wait for the other to be listening before I began talking. 

I invite you on a journey into the world of listening evangelism.  We’ll look into scripture – the stories of Jesus and the first evangelists in the early church.  We’ll hear from each other.  And together, we will go into the world with the good news that before God Satan is powerless, death is defeated, and sin is covered.  It’s all because of Jesus.  We will share that message and we will do it slowly, patiently, listening, so that when we share our friends will hear. 



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