Evangelism is Hard
I recently asked our elders to read a book by a British minister named, Rico Tice. The book is called, Honest Evangelism: How to talk about Jesus when it’s tough. Rico is one of those guys whom everyone agrees is an evangelist in the most official, technical, unequivocal way. The people that know him understand that he is very high-energy and very strong, which years of playing rugby have enhanced. They also know that he is a devoted follower of Jesus and absolutely invigorated by telling others about Him.
After being ordained in the Church of England in 1994, Rico was hired by All Souls, Langham Place (London), whose minister at the time was John Stott. As you can imagine, through the ministry of John Stott many came to All Souls to learn about Jesus for the very first time. Rico was uniquely placed to help these seekers learn more about Jesus and, hopefully, repent and believe. Now, by his own admission, he is paid to do evangelism (47)!
In his capacity at All Souls, Rico worked with a few others to develop a training ministry for new followers and potential followers. The course became Christianity Explored and I believe this will one day become a part of our Midweek here at Covenant so that our local community has a place to enjoy the covenant life of our church family even as they scrutinize the divine root of that covenant life together.
Rico begins with this passage from the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice! with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15.5-7).
Since a teenager Rico has loved telling people about Jesus, but that experience has also taught him that this is painful. Imagine that: rejoicing in the salvation of the lost sheep will, under normal circumstances, involve pain. Jesus, after all, sent His disciples into the world as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10.16). The world is not normally waiting with bated breath to hear the Good News. Even some of the most encouraging words about evangelism that tell us to be prepared to answer those who ask us to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3.15), are addressed to those suffering under real persecution (1 Peter 1.6). Rico says, “I know there’s a painline that needs to be crossed if I tell someone the gospel; but I want to stay on the comfortable side of the painline (15).” Crossing this painline is a challenge. “Either you don’t think it’s working, because you got hit; or you don’t think it’s worth it, because you got hit.” If we thought that there was a safety from this because we’re American, in my November 7 sermon I quoted this comment from Rico: “In the UK, I think we’re pretty much at the point where to hold Christian values and to speak Christian truth is to get hated. In the US, it seems that that’s where it’s heading (19).” Rico believes that the US is perhaps a decade or two behind the UK (85).
Rico knows what he’s speaking about. Later in the book he surveys how obstacles to gospel proclamation have shifted from 1954 to 1994 to 2015. When he began evangelistic outreach at All Souls in 1994, he found a hardening against Christianity in London. In his experience, Christianity was seen as weird, untrue, irrelevant, and intolerant. Something foreseen by Stott, who died four years before Honest Evangelism was published, Christianity is simply dismissed. The cultural setting is so tolerant and permissive that “Jesus simply isn’t on the agenda … people hardly ever thing about why they don’t agree with your beliefs (87).”
But there is more to the story than the pain line of gospel proclamation. One evangelist writes, “for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4.17-19).” There is a hurt in the lives of the lost that can only be relieved by the gospel. Rico says, “the same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and is offended by absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way you live (20).” Even as Paul well understood the pain of telling others the gospel, he also understood the hurt of a gospel-less life. The pain line presents an opportunity to be hurt by the hostile world, but also an opportunity to learn about the hurt suffered by the lost.
If we wonder about our own lack of motivation for telling others about Jesus, consider what Rico says is proper motivation. He says that the glory of Jesus, the guarantee of the new creation, and the grim reality of death are foremost (25ff). We may miss the reference of glory even in the words that surround the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28.18, 20).” The glory of Jesus is all over the call to evangelize. Are we grieved that world does not glorify Jesus? This was particularly humbling for me. Rico reminds us that, when Paul entered Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him because he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17.16).” Am I provoked enough about a world that refuses to give Jesus the glory He deserves, to tell others about Him?
On another note, are we fully confident enough of the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation 21 to tell others about Jesus? The future for the Christian represents an “eternal … physical, solid life in a perfect world (33).” Related to this, the future life of the nonbeliever is a grim life of hell. While it may sound old-fashioned, the life that we offer others is one that delivers them from hell. Hell is real (see Luke 15.22-23, 26; Matthew 13.41-42). When we relocate hell to a place of lesser importance in the gospel so that we might gain a more receptive audience, we actually excise love for that audience. When Rico says, “my willingness to tell people the gospel is a test of my love for them,” he rightly makes hell a central part of sincere and loving proclamation.
We don’t want the glory of Jesus to be disregarded or disrespected, we don’t want to forget the promise of eternal life with God, and we don’t want to sit idly by while the lost go to hell.
“When we worship an idol, we turn God into a divine waiter. He is there to deliver our daydream to us. We touch base with him on a Sunday; we put our order in via prayer; we might give a decent tip in the collection plate. But God is essentially there to give us what we feel we need – our idol. And we get furious with him if he doesn’t deliver (43).”
This is a pretty difficult charge, to be sure. While Rico does not say that we avoid evangelism because we are full of idolatry, he does insist that these idols are what prevent us from crossing the painline to tell others about Jesus, and that identifying and beginning the process of uprooting them is key to doing so (45). Each of us likely find this excruciatingly hard to admit. One the patterns I have discerned from Honest Evangelism is that, while the painline is hard to cross, there are numerous other pains associated with gospel proclamation. Admitting and dealing with our idols is certainly one. What do you spend the most time daydreaming about? Start there. While Rico has only a few things to say on this topic, I recommend spending time in a book by David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work?, to learn what more the Bible has to say on dealing with idols of the heart.
Rico says that we can count on three realities to help us cross the painline. We have a sovereign God who has placed us here to vocalize the message of the gospel. In fact, His sovereignty is what has placed the lost in our path that we might share with him or her, just as He placed seekers in Athens to hear Paul (Acts 17.26-27). We have a gracious God who will not shrink His affection for us based on an individual response to the gospel. We are precious children to Him, which is a biblical reality hard for us to understand, accept, and bang … into our hearts (52).” And we have a powerful God who is the sole source of a believer’s salvation. The hearers of the gospel are thoroughly blinded and will remain blind without His power bringing light to their darkness (2 Corinthians 4.4-6, like Genesis 1.2-3). This is so liberating, Rico says, that successful witnessing becomes “not someone becoming a Christian – it's someone hearing about Christ (55).”
None of this is simple. One of my favorite pieces of Rico’s advice is that we are to be good askers. In my line of work, I am rarely around people in the industry (that is, ministers), and always around people in other industries. By this I only mean that I am always asking people questions. I genuinely know very little about their workweek, and I am genuinely curious by nature, so I tend to ask a lot of questions. When I am asking about their non-ministry life, I am looking for opportunities to talk about spiritual matters.
Rico says that asking, getting to know others, learning what makes them tick, is very important. Of course, listening is also important (James 1.19). Alongside this kind of asking is another kind of asking: sincere praying to God, asking Him for opportunities. Finally, we must be ready.
We tend to expect gospel content to be the lengthiest portion of every book on evangelism. Rico, instead, presents us with three broad components of gospel content, which he then connects with three responses to that content (62ff, but the following is from 69).
- Jesus’ identity, who He is. “A human, and God; our King.”
- Jesus’ mission, why He came. “Jesus came to die to take our punishment and remove our guilt so that we can be part of his eternal kingdom, now and beyond death, enjoying life with him forever.”
- Jesus’ call, what He wants from us. “Jesus calls us to follow him as our King. This is hard, but infinitely and eternally worth it.”
In only a few short pages and with a handful of verses, Rico doesn’t make the content everything. That is, he reminds us that we are witnesses, testifying to the greatness of another. Just as Rico says we’re not to truncate the gospel and “leave some of it out (70).” Nonetheless, our aim is to “tell someone enough for them to become a Christian; for them to turn to Jesus as their Ruler and trust him as their Rescuer (70).” The painline will have to be crossed for each of the three components of the gospel above, but we tend to make the painline unnecessarily hard by forgetting that we are merely testifiers. Again, “evangelism is not about saying everything, or saying it eloquently. But it is about saying enough. (70)”
It may be counterintuitive, but perhaps a great comfort lies in the fact that “research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them – and that time is growing (88).”
Understand that this is not something that we necessarily need to figure out quickly. It may be that our asking, praying, and being ready, may not need to be all worked out. There is a lot of room for on-the-job-training.
Rico gives a paradigm for almost every testimony (79):
- What was I like before?
- What did Christ do for me?
- What difference does He make?
Sharing this kind of message will require that I do a lot of listening first, earning the right to witness personally about the Christian life. But even if I have listened well and built a trusting relationship, I can easily imagine working through these three realities of my testimony over a two-year period. This may be the amount of time necessary.
During this time, I will surely have additional opportunities to help my friend consider the gospel. There may be many conversations. They may meet other Christian people. They may experience the corporate worship of the church. As a preacher, I always assume that some of my hearers are not yet believers.
Now, I may prefer that faith and repentance takes place more quickly than two years (I’m generally impatient), but I want to be grateful for the various opportunities, over any period of time, that I have to cross the painline and testify to the identity, mission, and call of Jesus.