I have just moved to Oldham in Manchester and, as one person put it, become a “northerner”. I’ve moved here to help Oldham Bethel Church with their outreach, responding to a number of heartfelt pleas in the Pastor’s blog. Arriving, I found that several key people were away for the week so took the opportunity to join the “Reaching Rochdale” outreach week with a neighbouring church in Milnrow.
I was forced straight out of my comfort zone when, on day one, I found myself volunteering to do door to door evangelism in a predominantly Muslim area. Somehow, I then felt compelled to continue this work believing it would get easier with practice. I’m not sure that it got any easier, but I became slightly less afraid and more willing as the week went on. Given the choice, I still prefer open-air work and reverted to that when it was taking place. But, my experience was definitely valuable and will be useful for the future.
Back in Oldham, I've been tasked with surveying the area for a few months to see what is already going on and, hopefully in the process, noting any opportunities for additional outreach work. Spending a number of hours researching things today, it's immediately tempting to focus on the social needs of the area as there are plenty of requests for volunteers for all sorts of things. I'm sure I could get stuck in and happily fill my time with these things as the needs are great, but I have to keep bringing it back to whether there would ever be opportunities to share the Gospel with people in each role/organisation. If not, I need to move on and not become distracted.
The enemy loves to keep us busy with work that appears to be Gospel centred but in reality is not much different to social work. I find that I'm back to my motto from the Logos Hope ship; help and hope must go hand in hand. I can't be offering help without hope as it's the ultimate tragedy; when I've made someone that bit more comfortable on their journey to a lost eternity.
I’ve taken part in a number of week long missions this year with the Open Air Mission and United Beach Missions. I highly recommend both organisations. Discussions about effective methods of evangelism have arisen frequently. It’s perhaps not surprising that if you throw a bunch of people interested in evangelism together for a week that they will have strong, and differing, views on the subject. What is concerning, though, is that there are some who think they are evangelising when they are not.
Jesus’ Great Commission tells us to:
“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16 vs 15-16)
If we take the plain, everyday, meaning of the text, it follows that when we are not proclaiming the Gospel to people, we are not evangelising. We may well be facilitating other people’s efforts or serving God in other ways, but it is not evangelism.
I’ve heard people come up with all sorts of things that they class as evangelism. Is it evangelism to attend a meeting at your church where someone is giving their testimony? How about if you invite your non-Christian friend along to hear the speaker? What about painting a child’s face, or giving them a balloon, and talking to their parent about the history of beach missions? What if you give them a big smile, will the joy of the Lord somehow be conveyed to them? What if you pray for them as they walk past?
Of course, some of you know that these things aren’t evangelism, but there are others who are offended by my comments. It’s worth reiterating that these things may well be good things to do, they may provide a platform for someone else to share the Gospel. In God’s providence, they may lead to profitable conversations later down the line. God may even be gracious and the person may actually ask you one of those questions we all hope for; “How did you become a Christian? Why do you do this?” Or even, “What must I do to be saved!?” But, most of the time, the person passes by and we wish we had made more of the opportunity.
In my experience, it’s much more difficult to get to these most important issues of the heart if we either dress the Gospel message up by entertaining people, or seek to dumb it down, or hide what we are really doing, when we first meet them. They aren’t stupid and most prefer honesty rather than being duped into something, then feeling deceived later.
We also need to remember that “the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1 vs 18.) If we hide the true Gospel to avoid offence, we are not attracting those who would be drawn to the Message, as well as not challenging those who will ultimately reject it.
Sometimes, I think we need to ask ourselves what we’re afraid of. Is it not just the enemy raising our anxiety levels and causing us to stumble? In the past, when I needed to force myself to do something that could be awkward or uncomfortable, I would think of the tag line from the Dr Pepper advert, “What’s the worst that could happen?” For those that remember the adverts, it’s never going to be as humiliating as that! Someone might slam a door in your face, or laugh at you, or belittle you (as happened to me recently.) You might even lose a friendship over it, but at least they have now heard the truth and you have done the loving thing in warning them. Ultimately, they are rejecting God and we should fear for them.
I appreciate that in open-air and door to door work greater risks can be taken; these people are probably strangers that you won’t see again. However, what is the point of developing friendships with people either over a week, on a beach mission, or over a lengthier period if they are colleagues, relatives, friends and neighbours, if we never actually share the Gospel with them. It won’t get easier to share if we wait indefinitely and none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
In the Philippines, I had the terrible experience of twice hearing of the deaths of people that I had met just once and had not shared the Gospel with, one was a child. I can’t carry that guilt because God is sovereign and I was later reassured that they had heard from other sources. What was it that had stopped me sharing directly during those first meetings; complacency and the belief that I had time to build relationships with them which would then make it easier to share the Gospel. That was a tough and painful lesson, and a reminder of the urgency of the work we are called to.
We were reminded recently that everything that happens in the life of a non-believer is completely meaningless. I certainly experienced that when I was back-sliding. Let’s not allow our church events, friendships and conversations to end up adding to the futility of a life lived without God because we never get round to offering people what they really need. Don’t leave it too late to tell someone that they need to repent and ask God for forgiveness through Jesus.
Let’s make sure that we prioritise actual evangelism so that we can all be involved in fulfilling the Great Commission and seeing souls saved.