In the previous blog I wrote that the paradox of evangelism is that when we remember that evangelism is impossible, we are more likely to evangelize!
Here’s the reverse of that paradox: If we think evangelism is supposed to be easy, we’re more likely to quit.
There’s ample support for the notion that evangelism can be easy or natural or “everyday” or smooth. Many books and seminars promote this perspective. But I don’t find such support in the Scriptures.
Given the drama that Scripture describes when people get saved (they’re delivered from the domain of darkness, Satan loses his stronghold, Jesus’ is glorified, dead people are raised to life, etc.), is it surprising that evangelism would be difficult?
I wonder if some people portray evangelism as easy with the hopes that more Christians will jump in and just do it. But I find that more Christians are likely to evangelize if they accept that, for them, evangelism may always be difficult. I know that has been a breakthrough for me.
For many years, I kept waiting for witnessing to flow the way it did for Bill Bright. I had sat under his teaching and read his numerous books, especially Witnessing Without Fear. It’s a great book… with a bad title. Bill Bright taught me a tremendous amount on how to start evangelistic conversations, how to transition other conversations to the gospel, and how to present the gospel message in a clear, concise, and compelling way.
But Bill Bright was an evangelist, if there ever was one, and I have other gifts. After hoping for many years that my evangelism would someday look and sound like Bill’s, I finally accepted the fact that God gives different people different gifts.
This doesn’t let me off the hook. Even non-evangelists need to share the gospel. That’s why evangelist/apostle Paul told timid/pastor Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.”
But non-evangelists’ approaches are going to look and sound different than Bill Bright’s, Bill Hybels’, and Billy Graham’s. (Maybe it’s all in the name!) For the rest of us, we may need to give up the hope that evangelism will ever be easy. As long as we expect it to be so, we’ll second guess ourselves, experience discouragement, and perhaps, quit.
Witnessing with fear may be my motto (but I doubt that title would sell many books).
Here’s another paradox of evangelism. When we accept that evangelism will never be easy… it actually gets slightly less difficult.
I recently read an interview of a Christian leader that included this interchange:
Interviewer: “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Christian leader: “I don’t say anything. I listen.”
Interviewer: “Okay…When God speaks to you, then, what does he say?”
Christian leader: “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”
The account of the interview recorded that, at this point, the interviewer seemed “baffled.”
Then, the Christian leader added: “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”
What do you think of that? Do you agree with and/or like the Christian leader’s answers to the interviewer’s questions? Do you think the Christian leader accurately portrayed what prayer is all about? Do you hold this view of prayer, that if you don’t experience prayer first hand, you can’t really understand it?
This interchange was quoted in two Christian books,* and I think, in both cases, the authors were lifting up the Christian leader’s understanding of prayer as a positive example. But I think the Bible has something different to say.
When Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he did not say, “Well, for one thing, don’t use words. Just listen.” Instead, he told them (and us) to use words and, in one instance, he even gave us the exact words to say (Luke 11:2).
As we read the Bible, we find many prayers that include lots of words. Consider that we have the equivalents of transcripts of intercessions by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Hezekiah, and many others. Note that all 150 psalms, in a sense, are written out prayers. Reflect on the fact that Paul tells his readers the very content of his supplications on their behalf. That such prayers have been recorded for us, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, suggests a high value on the use of words in prayer. It is simply not an accurate portrayal of Biblical prayer to say, “I don’t say anything. I listen.”
To be sure, listening is an important part of prayer. Our entire prayer times should not be filled with our words. Stillness and quietness should be a part as well. (Although, to be honest, I can’t seem to remember too many places in the Bible that say things like, “When you pray be sure to include some times of silence” or “When the disciples prayed, they sat still and listened to the voice of the Lord.”)
And to say that God doesn’t speak to us when we pray…well, I fear that may imply that God doesn’t speak words to us at all, which undermines the important Christian doctrine of inspiration – that indeed God has spoken and his word, the Bible, should be read as the very words of a communicative, verbal God.
There is something very appealing about a kind of mystical, non-verbal prayer. It serves as a foil against a totally rationalistic spirituality that we find in too many places today. Simplistic cognitive approaches leave us dry, uninspired, and unmoved. If all there is to our faith is a logical set of propositions, we feel we’ve missed something crucial because we are not merely rational beings. We also have emotions and spiritual drives that long for something other than arguments, credal statements, and formulaic how-tos.
Granted. But to swing the pendulum to the other extreme is to replace one unbiblical mode for another. A totally rational prayer life may be shaped more by the enlightenment than the Bible. On the other hand, non-verbal mystical prayer may look more like Buddhism than Gospel faith.
Now suppose I told you the interview quoted above was of Mother Teresa and the interviewer was Dan Rather. Does that change your opinion of the exchange? Or of my critique? Did you like the fact that Dan Rather got baffled?
When I told my wife I was going to write a blog about the interview she asked, “You’re not going to pick on Mother Teresa, are you? People don’t like it when you attack their favorite nun.”
Well, I hope I’m not attacking her. But other than Jesus, no person’s life is 100% exemplary. We should be able to learn from flawed people’s successes as well as their failures and their good teaching as well as their mistakes. No one should be above a respectful critique. I think, in this case, Mother Teresa expressed a kind of mysticism that is different from what Scripture teaches, records, and models.
A study of the Bible’s teaching about and examples of prayer should shape our prayer lives far more than any other influence.** Our prayers should involve words and silence, speaking and listening, singing and confessing, gratitude and petition. And when curious outsiders ask, we can describe prayer in ways that explain as well as invite them to find out what they’re missing.
* Quoted in Chuck Swindoll, So You Want to Be Like Christ? Eight Essentials to Get You There (Thomas Nelson, 2005), 61-62; and Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Thomas Nelson, 2011), 114.
** A great study of Paul’s prayers that deserves close reading is D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker, 1992).
The lofty notion of revival has taken center stage in my prayer life as of late. I’m sure I’m motivated in part by the disturbing stories that dominate our news. And God has guided me to some books that have underlined the need for such prayer.
Walter Kaiser’s book, Revive us Again: Biblical Principles for Revival Today, investigates numerous outpourings of God’s blessing that have been recorded in the Bible. Why such an approach seems so novel may indicate just how far we’ve slid away from spiritual vitality! Reading Kaiser’s commentary on God’s works of “refreshment” in the past is remarkably encouraging.
I also appreciated a hopeful comment in Ross Douthat’s otherwise disheartening book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The book is well worth reading and helps put into perspective how we’ve gotten into some of the messes we are in. But without the belief in God’s ability to shake up his church, this book would be tough to wade through.
Here’s what Douthat wrote in his concluding chapter:
“It would be heresy and hubris to assume that a renewal of either [the church or our country] is inevitable. Christianity’s overall resilience hasn’t prevented particular Christendoms from decaying and dissolving, and Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America. But to hope for a revival is every believer’s obligation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a more robust and rigorous American Christianity is something that even non-believers should consider hoping for as well.”
The best book I’ve read recently about revival is Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir. Knowing that God’s people have faced even darker times than we see today and hearing how God poured out an unusual flood of evangelistic fruit, transformational worship, and anointed preaching can move even the most pessimistic saint towards expectant intercession.
I’ve written an article that explores how this might look on college campuses and beyond. I’ve entitled it The Next Campus Revival: A Prayerful Consideration and I’ve posted it here. I hope you’ll consider reading it and sharing it with others.
The task of evangelism often includes telling our individual story along with the larger gospel story. Weaving the two together makes for a powerful articulation of God’s gracious work through all times and his specific salvific work in an individual heart – namely, yours.
Many have supported their emphasis on sharing a personal testimony by pointing out that Paul did so numerous times in the book of Acts. In Acts 26, for example, Paul tells Agrippa about his Damascus Road experience with the hopes that he, along with all who were listening to him “may become what I am, except for these chains” (vs. 29).
As an encouragement for us to follow Paul’s model, some have argued, “People can’t dismiss your personal testimony because it’s your story. They can’t deny it.”
I’m all for people sharing their personal testimony. But a bit more careful thought needs to shape the process.
It is worth noting that Paul did not merely share his subjective, personal experience. He wove together that story with the more objective, universal Gospel story that must be proclaimed to all people. Paul crafted a dual-themed masterpiece that spoke of his unique encounter with Jesus along with these objective propositions:
- Paul’s hope is what God had promised the fathers (vss.6-7)
- Paul’s message included the fact that conversion (anyone’s!) is from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, involves forgiveness from sins, and leads to sanctification (vs. 18)
- People must “repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (vs. 20)
- This message is in line with the prophets and Moses (vs. 22)
- The crux of the matter is not Paul’s subjective experience but the objective truth that Christ suffered and rose from the dead (vs. 23)
So, as we consider sharing our testimony, we should, like Paul, weave together a twofold-story that combines our individual experience with the Gospel for all. Otherwise they will indeed dismiss what we say as something merely our experience. They won’t deny it. But they won’t embrace it either. They won’t disagree but they won’t feel its sting.
How do we do this? Here are two suggestions:
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Integration Points.