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Where Evangelism Fails

“I offered them Christ.”

This is how John Wesley and George Whitefield would describe their evangelistic efforts. They may have preached to tens of thousands, but they didn’t spotlight “decisions for Jesus” nor claim “salvations” (they spoke more of “awakenings” to the things of God). In summarizing their evangelism, the emphasis fell on the divine offer, not the human response: “I offered them Christ.”

This “supply-side” focus (rather than “results-driven” ministry) is so healthy, clarifying, and joy-giving. As an evangelist, nothing brings home to me the graciousness of my Lord so much as offering him to others. The givenness of Jesus is so tangible when you lift him up before people and say: “Turn and receive this Lord; he has given himself. Stop trusting yourself, and have him.”

Nothing brings home to me the graciousness of my Lord as much as offering him to others.

Martin Luther put the preacher’s role starkly when he claimed: “Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times it would all be vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, This is for you, take what is yours.” The offering of Christ on the cross and the offering of Christ in preaching (and in communion) were all of a piece for Luther. By the Spirit, the Word of God extends the gift of Christ into the world, and the preacher plays a part in this flow. This is why Luther says in The Freedom of a Christian, “Preaching is naught other but an offering and presentation of Christ.”

Popular Alternatives

Yet so often a preacher will offer anything and everything except Jesus. Here are some popular alternatives.

1. We offer them “cool.”

We reassure folks they don’t have to look weird to be a Christian. Christians can be trendy, too.

2. We offer them “credibility.”

We tell people they don’t need to be brainless to be a Christian. Christians can be clever, too.

3. We offer them a creed.

We communicate propositions, not the Person. Creeds, not Christ. The five truths that need to be processed rather than the One in whom those truths cohere. Doctrine is absolutely vital, but our fundamental offer must be Jesus, not “a worldview.”

4. We offer them a course.

Here the evangelist rounds off the gospel address with the offer of a follow-up course. Courses are wonderful; I use and recommend them all the time. Yet if, after all our preaching, we only offer a course, we’ve stopped short of the true offer—Christ himself.

Having said all this, evangelism ought to be contextual, thoughtful, and doctrinally robust. Let me also repeat my love for evangelistic courses. But above all we should focus on our central task: the proclamation of Jesus himself, to the end that he be trusted—that is, embraced. He is the center of our gospel preaching.

Why We Fail

I often fail to preach according to the convictions I’m expressing here. When I consider why I fail, I come up with some uncomfortable possibilities. Perhaps we don’t offer Christ for the following reasons.

1. We think cool, credibility, creeds, and courses are more attractive than Jesus.

Of course we’d never say that. We dare not even articulate the thought. But I wonder if it’s there.

2. We imagine the gospel is a process rather than a Person.

Again, if cornered, we’d swear that faith is a gift, a happening, an event. We’d insist that the gospel is news; it’s a revelation. But if our evangelism is all processes, perhaps we’ve begun to think of the evangel itself as a process.

3. We don’t honestly think people will become Christians.

Perhaps we’ve thought about conversion merely sociologically. Maybe our thoughts are taken up with the observation that “people are much further back these days” and “we just need to bring them on a few steps toward faith.”

4. We don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.

We don’t actually think the power of almighty God is unleashed when the Word is preached. Instead we trust the resources of the flesh.

5. We refuse to be as vulnerable as the Lord we proclaim.

Paul knew that a foolish message (1 Cor. 1:18–25) meant a foolish people (1:26–31) and a foolish messenger (2:1–5). But we don’t want to be cruciform preachers, opening our arms to a world that despises and belittles the word of the cross. We want to show the world how wise and strong we are.

Return to the Center

One hundred fifty years ago, Charles Spurgeon said:

A sermon without Christ as its beginning, middle, and end is a mistake in conception and a crime in execution. However grand the language it will be merely much-ado-about-nothing if Christ be not there. And I mean by “Christ” not merely his example and the ethical precepts of his teaching, but his atoning blood, his wondrous satisfaction made for human sin, and the grand doctrine of “believe and live.”

We need to return to the courage and convictions of our forebears. Paul “appealed” and “implored” (2 Cor. 5:20). Luther “bid” people: “Take what is yours.” Whitefield and Wesley “offered them Christ.” Let’s not set our sights on anything less.

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