[Eds. note: Recently, I read the book, “Primary Purpose”, by Ted Haggard. This post contains the proceeds of my study of the subject of evangelism.]
The Current Attitude Towards Evangelism
I’ve known a number of people who have become Christians, and it seems like whenever someone becomes a believer, it makes some people angry, and other people surprised.
People get angry because it’s deeply unsettling to realize that you’ve been wrong about other people, and also about some very basic things in life. I understand that because I’ve experienced that myself, many times.
But I get really angry and disgusted when other Christians are “surprised”. Why should people be surprised when someone becomes a believer? It is God’s will for us to believe, so why are they surprised? I think those people who are surprised when someone believes in God, don’t really know God very much.
Or we could ask why most Christians feel powerless to affect their environments and the people around them each day. They seldom take the great commission seriously. Obviously, even those Christians – people who are supposed to be carrying the Gospel – can’t really imagine it’s like carrying a .44 Magnum down Main Street. (In this scenario, it’s a really BAD thing to get surprised!) Or maybe they do, and they just don’t want to get involved because of all the trouble and work it will bring.
Most Christians just don’t want to take responsibility for their calling in life. They would rather stick to a self-centered routine and remain a mystery to those around them.
I am writing about Evangelism because I want to debunk some myths about it that are commonly held among Christians, and make the duty of evangelism clear to those who are called.
The Present Situation
I have done some informal mission work in Asia. In Taiwan for example, a lot of people are deterministic (or fatalistic). Determinism believes that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of a previous state of affairs. Determinism believes that the will is not free, but is inevitably and invincibly determined by motives. Actively, Determinism displays an inflated ego, and is typically signified by bullying, aggressive or controlling behavior and manipulating others. Passively, Determinism resorts to self-pity and blaming others, hopelessly resigns ones’ self to “fate”, and seeks to protect ones’ self-interests and to enhance ones’ security (e.g. hoarding, greed, putting security bars on the windows and more than one lock on the door).
Essentially, deterministic people think that, “Everything is determined by FATE – Fate Rules!” They consult their astrological horoscope, they go to fortune tellers and they are very superstitious because they don’t believe they have any choice about their lives. They are “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). They think that all they can do is REACT to what is already happening. Consequently, they would never consider the possibility of a PROACTIVE CHOICE in a matter. They just don’t have the faith or the vision to do so.
True Evangelism Presents Clear Choices
I want to shake up your idea of Evangelism with a new perspective. I want to take a step away from the pressure and hyper-emotionalism of “the Great Commission” and get away from the sensationalism of the tele-evangelists who shout, “JAEYSUS IS LAOWARD!” I don’t like the term “soul winning” because that places an undue emphasis on the evangelistic EFFORTS.
Evangelistic outreach may very well include those things, but a successful evangelist doesn’t ponder upon fantastic ideals. An effective evangelist simply identifies an area where people are stymied in their lives, and presents them with a clear choice in the matter. That is God’s will for every person in this life – to choose.
Think about that.
Without free will, we have no personality, no hope, no life… We are mere automatons.
True Evangelism Gives People the FREEDOM to Choose
My friend Paul, who is a Canadian missionary in Taiwan, once told me a meaningful lesson. Paul grew up in the late 1960’s and the early 70’s, which was a time when drug use was prevalent and popular in America. He said that his parents were extremely strict about telling him never to use drugs. He knew his parents were right, but because of the LAW set down by his parents, he always struggled against the desire to try recreational drugs.
Then one day, Paul met a guy who was known to be a “druggie”, and he told Paul, “Taking drugs is very risky, so you need to choose good friends to take drugs with – people you can trust.” He told Paul that if he ever wanted to try taking drugs, then he should do it with him, because he was someone he could trust to take care of him (and not tell anyone).
Of course, Paul always had a “choice”, but his parents never gave him the FREEDOM of choice. They always DICTATED what he should choose. Furthermore, they never explained the physical or social CONSEQUENCES of drug abuse, so the taboo became shrouded in mystery and fear in Paul’s mind, which only made it more difficult to resist. (If this curiosity should ever spiral out of control in a person, it results in a bondage to the sinful nature.)
The mere opportunity to try drugs was not really a clear choice either, but the man who invited him to try drugs presented him with a clear choice: “You need to choose good friends to take drugs with – people you can trust.” This was a true and free choice. It was a true choice because the REAL QUESTION was not whether to disobey his parents and take drugs or not, but it was about what kind of LIFESTYLE he was pursuing.
Giving Paul the choice was very important, because then Paul remembered why his parents told him not to take drugs, and he no longer had the desire to try drugs. As a result, he “chose” different friends, who did not take him into a lifestyle of drug abuse.
Paul told me that he was grateful for the CLEAR OPTIONS offered to him by that man, because it gave him the FREEDOM to choose NOT to take drugs, and that RELEASED him from the CURIOUS DESIRE to take drugs. Sometime after this, Paul suspected that this man knew he had a big problem with drugs, but that he prevented a lot of young people like Paul from becoming drug abusers, simply by giving them an honest, clear choice in the matter.
Furthermore, Paul said this experience was very instrumental in shaping him for the Mission field, because it helped him realize that a Man of God must give each person a choice, because without the freedom of choice, the grace of God can become frustrated.
In his work as a missionary, Paul learned that he is not responsible for WHAT people choose. Each person is responsible for his own choices. But a true missionary (or evangelist) is responsible to God for giving people the FREEDOM to choose. Paul said that is what “planting seeds” is all about. God does the rest.
In addition to the extremely unwise council given by parents, like Paul’s, who are suffocatingly strict, I also want to point out that many Churches and zealous Christians have an unhealthy habit of dictating “Thou shalt not…”, to others, thereby revoking their freedom of choice and shoving them towards the sinful nature. This is NOT Evangelism! It’s pharisaical condemnation.
The Word of God Presents Us With Clear Choices
The word of God is, by nature, DIVISIVE. Consider the description of the word given in the book of Hebrews.
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Ones’ response to the Word of God invariably requires one to make choices through the exercise of the will. A series of cohesive choices serves to build HABITS.
Every choice and every habit takes us a step further down the path of life. The total collection of all our choices and habits results in a lifestyle.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105)
These choices are an expression of who we are, and they might even SHAPE who we are, to some extent. I’m talking about your spiritual IDENTITY.
Further along, every choice brings rewards and consequences. We may see these rewards and consequences positively, as being a channel of discipline and instruction from God.
The Discipline of Decision-Making
Those who do not know God have no choice, no discipline, and no power or efficacy. (With this in view, it’s no wonder that they are also frustrated, desperate, lonely, and have no life, peace or joy.)
Presenting choices to others is a door of invitation for them to become “sons of God” through enduring His discipline (chastisement). Consider this viewpoint in light of Hebrews 12:6.
3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. 4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
”My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.” [Eds. note: Quoted from Proverbs 3:12-13.]
7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
I believe that most of the time, it makes little difference what the choice is, as long as one submits to the discipline of God by making a choice and following through on it. Even poor choices can bring good lessons, by the grace of God.
But when one avoids making decisions, he only postpones the inevitable, and at some point, his lack of action will create a circumstance that will all come down upon him at once, thereby reinforcing the false notion in his mind, that it was his “fate” all along.
Of course, it is possible not to choose, but that is also a choice in itself. But in bringing the issue to a head by offering a clear choice, it brings ones’ internal struggle from being inside the souls’ deep darkness, into the light of the consciousness, where it can be confessed and dealt with appropriately.
According to my experience, presenting that choice is evangelism!
The Freedom of Decision-Making
Two of the main desires of the human heart, especially in the teenage years, are emotional independence and exploration. This is usually expressed through social avenues, but some pursue it through their careers and/or academic achievements. It’s impossible to change this and still have an emotionally healthy person. So, we should not attempt to disrupt this nature in others, but we should seek to give them an opportunity to exercise their God-given freedoms by offering them choices.
It is very important to speak to people (especially young people) about their choices, because everyone has a blind spot. No one can totally understand the whole of life. No one is a “know-it-all”. We need each other to find the words necessary to express ourselves. In fact, the mere ability to put your perspective into words, and have the understanding of others, is a great freedom! We need to help others find freedom through their words, just as we need them to help us do the same.
Four Common Responses to the Opportunity of Choice
Whenever people are presented with some form of God’s word, different people show different behaviors in their response, concerning decision-making. Generally, there are four different responses that we must deal with.
- Some people want to make choices, but they have no real opportunities to choose, or if they do, then either their choices are not respected by others, or they have no real power to follow through on them.
- Some people do choose, but they lose interest for whatever reason and don’t follow through on their decision. They typically lack passion and purpose in their commitment, or perhaps they are simply too content, too lazy, or too dissipated by other kinds of sin.
- Some people either CAN’T see their choice, or they DON’T WANT to see their choice. These people are usually very busy with a lot of concerns or ambitions, or they have already committed themselves to other “responsibilities”, or perhaps they are incapacitated by certain fears, possibly even the fear of realizing they were wrong about some things.
- Some people, once given a clear choice about a matter, jump on the opportunity, follow through joyfully, and after a period of discipline, they soon receive some benefit from the experience.
Jesus describes these responses to evangelism in the Parable of the Four Seeds (Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8). It is evident from scripture that the “seed” is the Word of God (Luke 8:11) and the “sower” is the evangelist (Matthew 13:18).
4 And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him from every city, He spoke by a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6 Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. 8 But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
That last line indicates that this is a very important piece of scripture, so let’s tear into this, line by line. Jesus is saying that there are basically four kinds of responses that people may have when presented with information that demands a decision. Here, I’ve described each response as Type I, II, III and IV. Jesus also explained His parable of the Four Seeds (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15), and we’ll include this information here as well.
Type I – Those Who Are Deprived of the Freedom of Choice
The first type is described as seed being trampled (the choice is disrespected by other people) and eaten by birds (the opportunities are consumed by circumstances).
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. (Matthew 13:19)
And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. (Mark 4:15)
Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. (Luke 8:12)
These passages all refer to “the wicked one”, “Satan” and “the devil” being active in ruining the planted seed. I don’t believe that Satan himself shows up at the door to stab those seeds with his pitchfork. No, I believe that Satan uses unwitting people and unfavorable circumstances to accomplish his will.
The Type I people are those people who want to make choices, but they have no real opportunities to choose. By this, I mean that these people (1) lack the power to effect a change, (2) don’t possess the efficacy to produce the changes they desire, (3) are deprived of the resources necessary to support such changes, and/or (4) their choices are not accepted, respected and supported by others who have the power, efficacy and resources to reverse such choices.
These people need a lot of help to “escape the clutches of Satan”, whether it be through getting an education, escaping poverty, establishing a good reputation and a good social network, or simply getting free from any addictive habits or controlling people in their lives.
Type II – Those Who Are Apathetic About Their Lives
The second type is the seed that fell on a rock (has no root) and had no water (no passion of commitment).
But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. (Matthew 13:20-21)
These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. (Mark 4:16-17)
But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. (Luke 8:13)
The Type II people are the people who do choose, but they lose interest for whatever reason and don’t follow through on their decision. They typically lack passion and purpose in their commitment, or perhaps they are simply too immature and don’t know themselves very well.
These people don’t take life very seriously. They need to be constantly reminded, and held responsible to their choices. They need to know who they are, and they also need to be taught how to deal with the difficulties and temptations of life. Becoming active in a living Church can positively help these people.
At worst, these people need to endure hardships and frustrations, so that they stop living out of their minds, become ejected from their “comfort zone” and learn to live from the heart. It is a good thing (in God’s eyes) when a person “comes to the end of themselves”, but it will be a deeply humbling experience, typically one filled with a lot of sin and mistakes. A person in this state should be treated with kindness and patience, with the expectation that God is about to do great things in his/her life.
Type III – Those who are Rebelliously Independent, Without Hope or are Emotionally Defensive
The third type is the seed choked by thorns. So we must ask the question, what are “thorns”?
Thorns are mentioned many times in scripture. The first time indicates that thorns sprang forth as a result of the fall of man. (Genesis 3:17-18) The biological purpose of the thorn is to protect the thornbush from animals who would otherwise like to eat it.
In other words, it’s an instrument of defense. Do you know people who can’t, or won’t open up? Their thoughts and energies are consumed with their own defense mechanisms. These kinds of thoughts preclude and displace other thoughts that would entertain the imaginative possibilities of choice.
Thorns are also used in scripture to describe men who are lazy and perverse (Proverbs 15:19; 22:5 respectively), rebellious (2nd Samuel 23:6), and by nature, unable to bear fruit (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44; Hebrews 6:8)
In John 19, we read how the crown of Jesus was woven from thorns; an icon of the bittersweet irony of the gospel.
Thorns are also described in scripture as a source of irritation. Paul asked the Lord three times for his “thorn” to be removed (2nd Corinthians 12:7-10). But God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Now that we have a better understanding of the scriptural usage of “thorns”, let us consider the resultant behavior.
Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. (Matthew 13:22)
Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)
Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:14)
The Type III people are the opposites of the Type I people. They may very well have full control of their lives, but they are too self-centered to look beyond their present state or to trust God in any area of their lives. They enjoy being in control, or at least, they respect themselves for being able to hold their lives together, and they don’t want that status quo to change. In other words, they are motivated by their sinful pride.
Alternately, the Type III people could be those suffering from intense sadness, despondency, depression, or bitterness. These people are usually very busy with a lot of concerns (e.g. self-pity, unforgiveness) or ambitions (e.g. vindication, vengeance), or perhaps they are incapacitated by certain fears. These spiritual states present real challenges to the JOY of the Spirit, and would by nature, exclude one from receiving God’s grace.
In terms of choice, these people either CAN’T see their choice, or they DON’T WANT to see their choice.
Type IV – Those who are Receptive to Ministry
The fourth type is when the seed falls on “good soil” and grows as it should.
But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:23)
But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4:20)
But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:15)
Some people, once given a clear choice about a matter, jump on the opportunity, follow through joyfully, and soon receive some benefits from the experience. They are honest and open about their personal challenges with those whom they trust. They recognize and accept their own needs. They respect the needs of others, and they are willing to accept help and guidance from others.
What is the Good Soil?
The “good soil” is a metaphor for the special conditions that are necessary for a person’s spiritual growth to maturity. This is essentially what MINISTRY is all about. Because of the complex nature of a viable MINISTRY, this topic is discussed in greater detail in a separate post.
Who is the Good Sower?
In western cultures, people prefer truth-tellers to be direct, open and confident, yet caring, personal and informal. In contrast, the personal quality that many westerners consider to be egotistical pride and vanity, are hallmark virtues of a healthy self-respect in eastern cultures, and should be balanced by humility, which is often shown through deference. Moreover, this causes Asian people to abhor a critical confrontation of any type. So you must be a little more circumspect when brandishing the Sword of Truth in Asia so that you do not appear as an “ugly American”. One caveat is that people (in Taiwan) do appreciate a person who has good credentials and a strong confidence in himself, and such a person would be taken more seriously when he causes others to face critical choices.
As a teacher in Taiwan, I’ve found that encountering the application of truths through a reasonable, philosophical approach can draw others to think more deeply and clearly, and is very acceptable to everyone. In fact, being reasonably apologetic can even win you the respect of others.
Now, the idea of relying heavily on reason often raises flags in the minds of western Christians, with a view that it wrongly substitutes faith. But for those who have no faith to begin with, a form of logic based on Christian principles can give them a framework on which to build their understanding of life, raise new questions in their minds, and thereby lead them into truth. Of course, the goal here is not to teach or even proselytize, but to help people see very clearly the day-to-day choices they are facing in life.
How is this done?
It’s actually simpler than you might think. It’s not even necessarily to have a lot of Bible knowledge. Just use your common sense.
Whenever you see someone experiencing a “crisis of belief” you have the opportunity to evangelize.
A “crisis of belief” is a moment when the person is confused about their choices in life. These moments happen quite frequently to everyone. You just need to train yourself to recognize them. Frequently, people who are depressed, unmotivated, withdrawn, quarrelsome, domineering, lacking healthy boundaries or are suffering from habitual sins, or have any number of other social pathologies, are people who are going through a crisis of belief. They just don’t know it. Their life is in a quandary, and they’re waiting for someone to come along, maybe you, and speak to them about the truths they have been unable to apprehend.
When you find the opportunity to evangelize, take the effort to clearly understand what their crisis of belief is all about. Then, spell out their choices very clearly, and the resulting consequences and rewards. Make it clear that they are responsible for their own decisions. Then, be sure to respect their decisions, whether you think it is for better or for worse. If the persons’ choice is not respected, then you are essentially denying them the freedom of choice. Very frequently, NOT having the freedom to choose is usually worse than making a poor choice.
Why? It’s because when one makes a choice, one always has the opportunity to LEARN from what he has chosen. But without a choice, time passes and opportunities are lost, and the person gains nothing from it.
People who have a position of authority over others (e.g. parent, teacher, supervisor, mentor, etc.) are “stewards of men”, and have the responsibility of forming self-respect in them, and giving them a healthy respect for God and authority. These “stewards of men” must do what they can to enforce the decisions that their “disciples” make.
For example, I tell my students that they will fail my class if they miss more than five days a semester. So if one student misses more than five days, I have the responsibility to fail him. If I become sympathetic to his plight and I do not fail him, then I have destroyed his choice and also some of his power, thereby making him a weaker and less-respected person (although he might disagree for a while).
Of course, faith is a larger issue, which usually requires more than one simple decision.
Asking people to choose between heaven or hell often becomes a confusing if not a hatefully indicting question, especially if the person believes in being saved by works, reincarnation, etc. These types of beliefs are not easily changed (because they do not hinge on a single, simple decision, but involves one’s entire life), so all your honest efforts in the traditional style of “witnessing” will only open up a contentious argument WITHOUT the possibility of a win-win conclusion.
Of course, we all know that a person cannot be “won to Christ” through theological debates. The reason is because those arguments never present the opportunity for one to make any conscious decisions about things. All they do is blow up ones’ pride with the expression of knowledge, which actually moves them in the wrong direction, spiritually.
Just because you present the Gospel to someone doesn’t mean that you have evangelized. Just because you tell someone about Jesus doesn’t mean they’ve made a choice about their eternal destiny. All you’ve really done is given them some information about God and the Christian religion. To be an effective evangelist, you must be more aggressive in pushing people to CHOOSE.
In fact, it is quite possible to present eternally critical choices to others, without ever mentioning anything about God or the Bible (just as in Paul’s case). Go about your “evangelism” in a discreet manner by describing the costs, responsibilities, rewards and benefits of whatever thinking habits and lifestyles come up in your dealings with others. These small confrontations can often draw people to make immediate and clear decisions about a matter, and they will often thank you for helping them see things more clearly. Just take it step by step and be PATIENT with people.
The important thing for you is that you can feel like you also have some control and choice in being a mentor, parent, trusted friend, spiritual brother, etc. and still earn the respect of others in your community and retain a good reputation as a Christian (which is important for an evangelist or a pastor). Your job will be much easier if you are a good role model for them to follow, and it is apparent to them that you are loyal, trustworthy and a caring source of guidance.
Remember the four types of responses. Some will make positive decisions, and others will not. Some will love you, and others will hate you. Nevertheless, the presentment of choices must always be done in a friendly, loving way. In fact, offering people a choice is a powerful way to show Christian love to them (1st Corinthians 13).
Jesus sent his apostles out in groups of two. Paul always had a partner in his missionary journeys. If you have the luxury of having a trusted Christian partner, then be sure to get him/her involved with your evangelistic concerns, so that the two of you can stand solid together and the world does not play you against each other.