That is one of the takeaways from a recent address from Dr. Paige Patterson at a symposium on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Patterson urged believers to re-establish personal evangelism as a major priority of the Great Commission. He contrasted talking about the gospel (with other Christians) to sharing the gospel (with unbelievers):
“Talking about the gospel is as far removed from effective witness as talking about race cars is from driving in the Indy 500. I’m thrilled that anyone wants to talk about the gospel, but talk is cheap. Like-minded people can easily sit in pleasant venues and talk about how to define the gospel, but to ‘go to the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in’ is a much more difficult situation… A witnessing church is the product of much concerted intercession, the example of a pastor who establishes the standard by his own actions, and the focus of a church on those who languish in their sins.”
I’m grateful for Dr. Patterson’s description of a “witnessing” church, and for the reminder that talking about the gospel should stir up in us a missionary spirit. After all, the gospel is the story of a missionary God who sent His missionary Son and now indwells us by His missionary Spirit.
I’m also challenged by Dr. Patterson’s words of warning. It is all too easy for churches to turn inward, even the ones that have “gospel-centered” labels affixed on their website. It is also easy for churches to turn “outward” – in good deeds and service – without including gospel proclamation. Both are real dangers: (1) the inward-focused church that talks a lot about the gospel but rarely shares it and (2) the outward-focused church that does a lot of ministry to others, but fails to give the gospel.
The Challenges to Personal Evangelism
The challenges to personal evangelism today are many. First, the past “scripts” of formulaic evangelism are no longer as effective in a pluralist society. But as Thom Rainer has warned, many churches have abandoned the cookie-cutter approach to evangelistic outreach without adopting anything else in its place. It’s fine to say something like “we see evangelism as a way of life, not a program” if evangelism truly is a way of life. But for too many churches, evangelism is neither.
A second challenge is the difficulty of knowing how best to share the gospel with an individual. Personal evangelism is often a journey, not one conversation. People come to the Lord through different experiences, different circumstances, and with different questions. As Os Guinness writes, “Jesus may be the only way to God, but there are as many ways to Jesus as there are people who come to Him.” No one encounter is exactly alike.
A third challenge is the time commitment of personal evangelism and discipleship. Last year, I wrote a post entitled, “Answering ‘No’ to One of These Questions Will Kill Your Evangelism.” The sixth question came to me from Greg Laurie, who told me he often sees Christians hesitate (1) to call people to faith and (2) walk with people once they have believed. In calling people to faith, we hesitate because we don’t want to seem pushy and we’d rather build a relationship. But there is a problem if all our “relationship-building” doesn’t include Jesus. In walking with people who trust Christ, we hesitate because of the messiness of repentance and faith. Newborns need a lot of care, as do those who have recently decided to follow Jesus.
A final challenge is the withdrawing of our society into like-minded associations. People associate by interests and less by geography. One of the things I hear from stay-at-home moms or from people who work in largely Christian environments is that they don’t encounter many lost people. That’s a challenge we need to overcome with intentionality. Going to the highways and hedges means looking outside our present circles, even while not neglecting those in our immediate vicinity.
A Jesus-Loving, Jesus-Talking Christian
I want to be the kind of person who is overflowing with love for Jesus and for others, the person who can’t talk long with someone before Jesus shows up in the conversation. I don’t want to share the gospel merely because it’s my duty or obligation; I want to share the gospel because of how much I love Jesus and want others to know Him too.
Yet, all too often when I share the gospel, I feel like a clumsy kid handling a stick of dynamite. Every time I’ve had the immense privilege of praying with someone who received Christ, I’ve thought, This has to be a God-thing. I didn’t do this well at all. Perhaps that’s God’s way of reminding me that the power is in His Word, not our presentation.
I also want to lead by example, not just by talk. I remember hearing James MacDonald ask a group of pastors one year, “If everyone in your congregation shared the gospel as often as you have this year, what would your church be like?”
The Good News of Evangelism
The good news is, the good news continues to go out. That’s why nothing motivates me more than spending time with other believers who love to share the gospel. Their passion is contagious. They hold me accountable, they ask about the people I’ve witnessed to, they pray with me for specific individuals, and they ask me for updates.
Just this week, one of the young women in the Life Group I lead asked that our group be praying daily for friends and family members who are lost, and for the opportunity to share the gospel every week. I was excited to pass along that request to the rest of the group, a result of evangelistic fervor bubbling up from the group.
Last week, I was rejoicing with a good friend about two Chinese students who had been the recipients of love and care from the church and who had recently repented of sin and trusted in Christ. We were talking about the contagious nature of evangelism in a local church when life change happens regularly and visibly.
Talk is cheap. Even when that talk is about the gospel. So, let’s not settle for conversations about the evangel that don’t lead to evangelism. Let’s pray the Lord will work in us and through us as we recommit to seeking the lost.