All genuine Christians want to be fishers of men, ambassadors for Christ, messengers of the Kingdom, witnesses, heralds of the truth, soul winners, and runners with beautiful feet. We want to be effective evangelists. But there seems to be a bit of a gap between what we desire to be and what we see happening in real life. When we imagine ourselves in the heavenly Kingdom, we want to see ourselves in the midst of a great assembly, many of whom arrived there after hearing the gospel fall from our lips. But when we assess ourselves by looking at our actual performance over the years since becoming Christians, we often lament that, at least so far, we don’t know of many (or any) people that have come to Christ through our invitations.
The gap between our desire to evangelize and our actual practice of the same doesn’t need to be a source of shame or discouragement in our lives. Quite the contrary, according to Hebrews 10:24, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” The most loving thing one person can for another is to tell them the Way to escape the wrath of God. The best “good work” is the harvesting of souls. So, where there is a lack of love—a sloth of evangelistic effort—there is a tremendous opportunity for growth. With a little encouragement, the Christian may step out into a whole new world. Like a young lion’s appetite for killing will awaken and grow to an insatiable rage after the lion tastes the blood of his first kill, so it is that when a Christian tastes the life-giving fruit of leading someone to Christ, he or she will always want more and never say enough (Proverbs 30:15-16).
If that gap between evangelistic desire and evangelistic fruit exists in your Christian life, then recognize that the closing of it can be one of the greatest encouragements you have ever experienced. When you pray persistently (Luke 18:1-8) like this: “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19-20), and God answers that prayer, your heart will swell with great joy. Moreover, when other Christians see God accomplish this work in you, they will be spurred on to pray for the same. Imagine the holy ferocity of an entire congregation awakening to the taste of evangelism. It would make that old lion (1 Peter 5:8) and his pack of demons tremble and run for the hills.
Here, then, is my effort to spur us on to the love and good work of evangelism. Drawing from the Scriptures first and from my own experiences second, I think there are two awakenings that need to take place in the lives of Christians in order for us to evangelize effectively. If waking up is too strong an analogy, since it implies that many are sleeping, then please accept the metaphor of obstacle course racing. It seems that there are at least two major obstacles as we run our Hebrews 12:1 race that get Christians hung up. There are open fields ahead, glorious sights along the way, but many Christians are standing at an obstacle, afraid to go over, and stuck, because there is no other way to get running again*.
Obstacle 1: The Fear of Looking the Fool
One of my favorite shows on NBA TV is called Shaq-tin a Fool. The show is essentially a classic blooper reel for the NBA, only it is hosted by Shaquille O’neal, who adds a lot of funny commentary. There are a couple NBA players that are the special victims of Shaq’s jesting. As much as the viewer enjoys laughing at the funny mistakes that are bound to happen from time to time on a basketball court, you also sort of feel bad for the guy you’re laughing at, especially if he is one of Shaq’s special victims.
If anyone desires to fish for men, he must be willing to be a fool for Christ. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him…” (1 Corinthians 2:14). There is no way around this. The message you bring to an unbeliever is powerful and life-giving, but that is not how they will hear it. To them, it will sound silly and life-draining. It is inevitable that they will hear it this way, unless God intervenes by the supernatural working of His Spirit (which sometimes He will).
The hardest part of any evangelism encounter is the awkward first step. If you came to visit your Pastor in his office, then talking about Christ would be a walk in the park. But here is the first obstacle of evangelism. The person you are evangelizing is, by definition, not a believer. That means that what you suspect to be the case is exactly right. You WILL look foolish in their eyes.
When I play basketball in a men’s league, most of my teammates like me (especially when the threes are falling…even if not so much when I go the rim). But this much I know…before the season is over, not one of them will think I’m cool. I won’t be the first guy invited over for beers and a game. Now, you say, my looks and awkward manner accounts for this. And you might be right. But, if I’m in the league for the right reason, then I know I am going to make a fool of myself in front of each of my teammates (hopefully it won’t be for something that deserves to be on Shaq-tin a Fool). I’m going to make an awkward statement or ask an awkward question. I am going to make a guy uncomfortable and make myself look strange. And this is precisely God’s desire.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-22)
“Are you a good person?” Recently, hanging out after a game, I’ve taken to asking guys this question. You can imagine their surprise. I can see the wheels turning as the person thinks “that’s a weird question to ask…I wonder where he’s going with this.” The guy will usually answer affirmatively, with several little caveats, and generally try not to say too much (hoping, I think, that the conversation will end quickly). But then I hit them with follow up questions about lying, stealing, adultery, and murder. Before long, we are in a fully engaged gospel conversation.
Sometimes I notice that other guys around the gym are noticing that I have another guy on the line. Perhaps they have been there themselves. Or perhaps guys are talking.
Because we also talk about other stuff, and because we play ball together, guys don’t seem to mind too much. But I do think that when I go into the gym, my reputation precedes me, and that…not in a good way.
In the summer of 1999, I sat at a table having lunch with some guys. We met in real estate school. We were all taking the 10-day course to get a Salesperson license. When 12:00 hit, we had an hour off to go to Taco Bell. That lunch was one of the first times that the Lord gave me the boldness to ask that awkward first question. To my surprise and great joy, I got to taste fruit that day. A young man named Keith accepted Christ after school that day. After tasting fruit that first day, I have never really worried much about what people think of me when I witness to them. I am perfectly happy to be a fool for Christ.
Is this the obstacle that is tripping you up? Do you want to climb over, but there is something of your reputation that you want to take with you? You are going to have to leave your reputation behind and accept a new one. Be branded with Christ, marked with the foolishness of the cross, and the foolishness of preaching. Persistently ask God for the boldness it will take to accept disapproval, or perhaps worse, even mocking, ridicule, or abuse.
Obstacle 2: The Discouragement of Having to Wait
My kids recently discovered the amazingly-unproductive and profoundly-annoying invention known as the rock tumbler. What does it do? It tumbles rocks. You put rocks in. It tumbles them…for days…and days…and days. And what comes out? Rocks. The process is the definition of frustration.
So it often is with evangelism. And the analogy isn’t altogether bad, because like a rock, sinners born in Adam are lifeless. And no matter how much we tumble them, adding whatever grit we may, a polished rock is still a rock…lifeless, hard, unfeeling.
The second great obstacle that hinders evangelism is the discouragement that sets in when evangelistic effort appears to produce no fruit. If we stop and think about it, we recognize that if it takes years for a seed to grow into a tree and finally bear fruit in season, then the gospel seeds we sow might be at work in the dark soil of a heart, even when there seems to be no fruit to show for it. Maybe many of the seeds we planted are growing behind the scenes. But the longer we go without seeing fruit, the more prone we are to discouragement. That’s just part of our human nature.
Our theological minds tell us different. We know the parable of the sower (Matthew 13). So, we should expect that even many of the people we thought had become Christians are only false converts. Moreover, we should expect that there will be plenty of people with hard hearts that have no room for the gospel. With this knowledge, we should count our success by the faithfulness of what and how we sow, not by the degree to which we see the fruits. Let the angels separate wheat from weeds in the age to come. Let’s not concern ourselves with what we can or cannot see now. There is good counsel here.
But emotionally, it is hard to keep sowing when we hardly see anything that looks like wheat. If the ground always looks like a cart path, or a rocky place, or a thorny place, it is hard to keep on sowing. When there is so much weed that you can’t see any wheat, discouragement sets in.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12a). Many potential evangelists are home in bed, suffering from a sickness that keeps them off the mission field. But “desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12b). See even one soul come to Christ and it will be life to your bones.
If you have grown discouraged because it seems to take too long to see people come to Christ, let this be your call to not give up hope. Perhaps you need to stop looking at that one patch of ground that seems never to produce any fruit (It might actually do better if it doesn’t have to grow in your shadow). Move along and sow more seed—lots of seed. Scatter it everywhere. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up hope. Expect the wait. But if you have hundreds of seeds in many different soils, you will be sure to see something come up, if you continue to pray and do not lose heart.
The stone of stumbling, over which most people fall, is Jesus Christ our Cornerstone. But that Rock of Offense is able to do something amazing, something a rock tumbler could never do. Jesus Christ is able to make “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-8)! The process through which he takes people in order to save them varies greatly. Some come quickly. Others slowly. But in the end, let’s remember that it is He alone that is able to work the miracle of regeneration. Let’s sow seeds in what appears to be hard, rocky and thorny places, as well as into the soil that looks good for seed, because, let’s be honest, none of us can tell the difference. Take courage and sow liberally. Your hope will not be deferred forever. Soon, he will let you see fruit, and you will become a tree of life. Just keep praying, and sowing, and hoping.
There are many reasons why Christians don’t evangelize. None of them are good. Most commonly, we fear man. We worry about what others will think of us if we ask awkward questions that make people uncomfortable. We know what people will think when they find out we’re Jesus freaks. So, we don’t evangelize. Or perhaps there is another hangup. When we have tried our hands at evangelism, we haven’t seen much fruit. So, we got discouraged, and we haven’t waded back into those cold waters very often. Fishing isn’t any fun if you never catch a fish.
Brothers and sisters, let me remind you that the Father gave His Son to die for us who believe. If He is that passionate, don’t you think He cares whether or not we speak up and tell the world about what He has done? If He was a passive God, then maybe we could justify our lack of interest in evangelism. But if He is so passionate, if the message we bring says anything to us about the kind of God He is, if the Object of the gospel is the reason why we preach, then a voiceless Christian is a sad contradiction. Let’s overcome the obstacles (He overcame the cross). Let’s speak with tongues ablaze, because He is more than willing to give His Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13).
*Not that evangelism is the sum total of the Christian life (as if someone who isn’t evangelizing has necessarily stopped running), but here again is evidence that every analogy falls short of the thing it seeks to signify. I only mean to say that in the area of evangelism, many Christians get hung up and may even grind to a halt.