January 10, 2017
Over the last several years, I have been observing a trend within church life in America. This trend has been growing and has at its core some beliefs that are found in Reformed Theology. Yet, because of excesses, abuses, false promises, and false teaching, a vital and integral part of the Christian life has been rendered ineffective or non-existent. The trend to which I am referring is the trend away from what is known as Personal Evangelism.
Personal Evangelism is that part of Christ’s parting command to His disciples in which we, as individual believers in Christ, seek to share the Gospel with people within the sphere of influence to which Christ has placed us. Jesus Christ gave two clear commands in Scripture, commonly known as the Great Commission, that were to be the Christian’s marching orders (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15). Christ not only gave these commands as His parting directive, He also exampled personal evangelism before His disciples during His earthly ministry (Matt. 4:14; Mk. 1:15; Lk. 19:9-10; Jn. 3:3-21; Jn. 4:1-32; Jn. 8:1-11). As such, individual Christians are to follow Christ’s example (Jn. 13:15-16; Jn. 14:15, 21, 24; Jn. 15:16, 27; I Pet. 2:21).
I was first exposed to the practice of personal evangelism in the church that I was attending as a young enlisted military service member. The pastor of this local church encouraged the members every week at the Wednesday evening service to participate in the church’s weekly outreach effort on Thursday evenings. He also encouraged us to be diligent to share the gospel with others throughout the week. This was all new to me and quite frankly I initially thought this challenge from the pastor was a bunch of hooey. I considered confronting people with the gospel as badgering people with religion when they did not want to hear all of that. Moreover, my reluctance and skepticism were illustrative of my ignorance and naivety about this vital part of the Christian experience, even though I was a believer in Christ.
Over time, my mind and my heart were changed about personal evangelism. One evening, I was reading my Bible in my barracks room for my personal devotions. Luke chapter 10 was the passage for this particular time of study. Here, Jesus sends out 70 of His followers in pairs to evangelize the villages of the surrounding area. Then it struck me, if going out to evangelize and visit was good enough for Christ, then why is it not good enough for me? The next time my pastor challenged the church to participate in outreach on Thursday evening, my hand was raised and I was present and accounted for to help spread the Good News that Jesus saves. Consequently, I learned after going out with my church for a couple of weeks that this society is in desperate need of the gospel, especially those who enjoy financial, social, and material prosperity (Rev. 3:17)
So all of this begs the question as to why personal evangelism fails. If personal evangelism is so important, then why is it not emphasized more vociferously within American Christianity? Moreover, if personal evangelism is supposed to be the most effective way to evangelize our world, then why are there not more people accepting Christ as their Savior? There are several reasons for this problem of failure in personal evangelism from both my observation and participation in church life.
Reason # 1: Lack of a Proper Biblical Understanding Regarding Personal Evangelism
The first reason that personal evangelism fails is a lack of a proper understanding about the biblical mandate regarding the Great Commission. As revealed earlier, this was my hurdle to overcome—lack of proper knowledge. The only exposure that the average Christian in America has regarding personal evangelism is when representatives from a particular non-evangelical group attempts to make a presentation or hand out their literature. Thus, when the topic of personal evangelism is addressed within evangelical churches, the minds of those listening hearken to those obnoxious days of being harassed at the front doors of their homes by religious people. Thus, they shudder at the thought of seeing themselves doing the very thing they ridiculed and condemned in others. Therefore, the thought of the potential of being laughed at or ridiculed by people in the community is abhorrent.
Moreover, with the publishing of Joseph Aldrich’s book, Lifestyle Evangelism, in 1981, American Christianity found the alternative they had been looking for in order to forsake the more confrontational methods that had characterized the 1970’s. Now, the more introverted believers in Christ had a viable way to circumvent Christ’s command about personal evangelism. Now, pastors and denominational leadership could retool their outreach efforts and leave the less desirable evangelistic methods to other groups. This resulted in churches and denominations not teaching their members the Bible truth about Christ and personal evangelism. Thus, personal evangelism fails because of ignorance due the absence of biblical truth.
Reason # 2: Possessing An Improper Attitude Toward Personal Evangelism
The second reason personal evangelism fails is due to possessing an improper attitude towards personal evangelism. What is our attitude about personal evangelism? When we are challenged to share the gospel, how do we respond? Moreover, what is our attitude about practicing evangelism within our community? Part of the failure in personal evangelism can be traced to attitude. Too many times personal evangelism is relegated to checking the block on a checklist of spiritual disciplines. There have been several occasions, while accompanying a person in a position of spiritual leadership in a local church, that I have heard the lament of “I am not really into this door knocking stuff” or “I am only doing this because I am supposed to”. From where does this fatalistic, going-through-the-motions attitude derive? It comes primarily from false expectations regarding the outcomes of personal evangelism.
When I went off to Bible College to prepare for the ministry, one of the first ministry requirements that I had to fulfill was to spend my first year serving in the Sunday School Bus ministry. This method of outreach has fallen out of popularity in American Christianity but it is still utilized by a few churches, mainly Independent Baptist groups. The college emphasized personal soul-winning and visitation. Incidentally, I like the term soul-winning. It is a Bible term and Proverbs tells us those that win souls are wise (Prov. 11:30). The bus ministry was utilized as an outreach method for our church’s Sunday school program.
The weekly requirements for the Bus Ministry workers were: visit our routes for a minimum of 3 hours on Saturdays, maintain attendance records on our riders, visit the regular riders every Saturday, actively seek new riders and share the gospel with others on our bus routes, and develop and execute a Bible teaching program on the bus. Thus, individual bus routes became in essence functional micro-churches before that term was ever coined. The philosophy we operated under in the bus ministry was that if one could fill up a Sunday school bus every week and have people regularly saved and baptized, then one could do the same in a local church as a pastor. As a result, we thought everyone we talked to was supposed to drop to their knees and cry out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved!” We thought surely by the end of our first semester we would be utilizing 4 or 5 buses to bring all the people in from our efforts. Hence, it was high energy and time-consuming work that effectively eliminated your weekend for doing other things. I praise the Lord for that experience.
The reality of the matter was that we often experienced more disappointment and frustration than victory. What a reality check on our enthusiasm when we went the entire Saturday visitation period just hanging the weekly flyers or gospel tracts on doors because no one was home. What a reality check on our misplaced pride when, more often than not, people slammed doors in our face or tried to waste our time in circular arguments. What a reality check on our success when we signed up ten new riders on Saturday, just to have none of them ride the bus on Sunday. Then to discover on the subsequent Saturday that none those new riders could be reached because they moved away. It became quickly evident that we had some self-induced false expectations which resulted in developing a cynical and skeptical attitude.
One of the major lessons learned during my four years of serving in my church’s bus ministry was that you cannot be successful in outreach from week-to-week with a bad attitude. There were many times during my Bible College days when my attitude was not the greatest and I was not the most pleasant person to be around. Yet, when I got out there in that hot, humid Jacksonville, Florida heat and began to visit and witness to people on my bus route, such as the middle-aged lady dying of AIDS, or the kids living in apartment complexes that were nothing more than Crack Houses, I quickly realized that I really did not have it as hard as I thought I did and my evangelistic vision and burden for the lost was rekindled.
One particular experience comes to mind when I accompanied another bus worker to visit one of his families in an apartment complex on a Thursday evening. As we sat there, talking with these dear folks in their living room, cock roaches and water bugs were crawling everywhere. They were crawling up the walls, across the living room floor, up the furniture, etc. Wow, and I thought my living conditions were austere as a college student. It was not long before my perception of my circumstances was nothing more than a ruse and deception motivated by selfishness. Some of the people living in our communities are literally living in hell-on-earth minus the fire. That pales to insignificance any problem that I might be going through.
In my years in church life since Bible College, it has become quite obvious that the failure of personal evangelism is due in part to Christians having an improper attitude about personal evangelism. When the reality of personal evangelism runs counter to our false expectations, one begins to question the validity of personal evangelism as a method of outreach. This discovery can lead to a sense of disillusionment that Satan can use to motivate us to quit being faithful in witnessing for Christ. We can begin to lament in our minds, “It never works for me!” or “What a waste of time!” or the classic comment that I have heard often, “No one ever gets saved.” Then, we begin to make comparisons, “For all this is worth, I could be fishing or visiting Disney World with the family.” Afterwards, we begin to see personal evangelism as nothing more than an add-on to our daily or weekly routine that can be easily sacrificed on the altar of “something more important to do”. Then, when we actually do attempt to witness for Christ, we wonder why we fail in the effort.
Reason # 3: Having An Improper Personal Motive for Conducting Personal Evangelism
A third reason that personal evangelism fails is that we have an improper personal motive for being obedient to the Lord’s command in sharing the Gospel with others. Why are we attempting to evangelize the lost? What is our personal motives for participating in the outreach efforts of our church? Why are we handing out Gospel tracts? Why are we attempting to invite someone to church? Motivation and attitude are complimentary characteristics that define purpose and commitment. We are exhorted in the Bible to examine ourselves (I Cor. 11:28; II Cor. 13:5). The context of these verses are not addressing personal evangelism; however, it is the principle of examining yourself that I want to highlight. Too many times, we get frustrated with personal evangelism because we are motivated to do it for selfish reasons. The only biblical motivation for carrying out personal evangelism is our love for Christ, love for our fellow-man, and concern for his spiritual destiny (II Cor. 5:14; Gal. 5:14; I Jn. 4:19-21; I Jn. 5:3).
The reality is that some are attempting to practice personal evangelism for selfish reasons. Some see personal evangelism as a way to aggrandizement and notoriety. Others do it because they like to feel good about themselves because they see it as a benevolent humanitarian effort. Still, others are involved in personal evangelism because they like to obtain the notice and acknowledgment of their pastor or denominational leadership. I have become a little weary over the years when at some fellowship meeting of preachers inevitably someone asks, “How many did you have in church on Sunday?” or “How many people did you see saved and baptized?” We need to be reminded of Christ’s motivation for His work (Phil. 4:7). If our only motivation for practicing personal evangelism is so we can boast about winning people to Christ at the next fellowship meeting of our peers in the ministry or to gain the notice of the pastor of our church, then is it any wonder why we are not seeing more victories in our labors? Put another way, why should we expect Christ to bless our personal evangelism efforts if our core reason for involvement in carrying out the Great Commission is the plaudits of men?
Reason # 4: Lack of Holy Spirit Empowerment
The final reason that personal evangelism fails is that we are not empowered by the Holy Spirit. I recently heard a man involved in foreign missions work for several decades make the lament of how “back in my early days we all prayed for God’s Holy Spirit, we tried everything, but we did not see any fruit for our effort!” He went on to inform that “we learned we were doing missions wrong”. As I was listening to that testimony, the thought crossed my mind as to how interesting it was that this man saw the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as nothing more than a tool to be employed in order to see people come to Christ. Thus, personal evangelism along with organized outreach efforts are relegated to process and program rather than conducted in the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the criticisms arising calling personal evangelism as easy believism or quick prayerism.
It must be remembered that Christ instructed His disciples after His resurrection that they would be “endued with power” (Lk. 24:29). Earlier in the upper room, Christ told the disciples that they would receive the promise of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16-17). Without the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles, a Christian would not have an adequate understanding as to what Jesus was referring when He talked about this empowerment and promise of the Holy Spirit. We learn from these critical portions of the New Testament exactly what this power and promise of the Holy Spirit means and how the Holy Spirit was manifested in those first century Christians.
It must be noted that what is not being discussed is an interpretation that is promoted as fact regarding the empowerment and filling of the Holy Spirit. I am not referring to a second blessing or baptism that is evidenced by speaking in tongues. The Bible teaching regarding the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the initial conversion and ongoing work in the life of the believer is foreign to American Christianity. As a result, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is either ignored or minimized on one extreme or outlandishly and erroneously magnified on the opposite extreme. Therefore, it is imperative that believers in Christ understand what the Bible actually teaches regarding the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives to fulfill Christ’s commands.
Those initial disciples were instructed to wait at Jerusalem for the fulfillment of this promise of the Holy Spirit and subsequent empowerment (Acts 1:8). Christ told them that this empowerment by the Holy Spirit would result in them being witnesses. Nowhere in Acts 1:8 can be found a promise of the gifts of speaking in tongues or the other spiritual gifts. Have you ever wondered why that is? You would think that if speaking in tongues or exercising the other spiritual gifts were so important and vital to the Christian experience, that Christ would have at least mentioned them in connection with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet, Christ is silent. What does Christ emphasize? He emphasizes truth, judgment, remembering, teaching, conviction, and witnessing (Jn. 14:15-17, 26; Jn. 15:26-27; Jn. 16:7-15; Acts 1:8).
Now since Jesus promised the disciples that they were to be witnesses of Him in all the world, He did not leave them without enablement. Therefore, what happened at the celebration of Pentecost? They proclaimed the Gospel with power (Acts 2:1-40). Furthermore, they proclaimed the Gospel with boldness (Acts 4:31). Power and boldness characterized the evangelizing effort of the early Christians. Could it be that our personal evangelism efforts seem dry and routine because we are lacking the power and boldness that only comes through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit? The only characteristic that matters to Christ regarding the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is boldness and power in witnessing not the gifts of tongues, healing, or prophecy.
Now how are we to appropriate the promise of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in our lives in order to have the power and boldness necessary to be an effective witness for Christ in presenting the Gospel? First, by realizing that Christ has promised the empowering or filling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian (Lk 11:13). Second by understanding that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a command not an option (Eph. 5:18). Third, by realizing that unconfessed sin hinders the Holy Spirit from working liberally in our lives (Eph. 4:30; I Thes. 5:19; I Jn 1:9). Forth, by asking for the filling or empowering of the Holy Spirit after confession of sin (Matt. 7:7; James 1:5-6; James 4:2-3; I Jn. 3:22; I Jn. 5:14-15). Fifth, by trusting that Christ will fulfill His promise in your life (Matt. 21:22).
What of the testimony of famous people in Church History that claimed an experiential filling of the Holy Spirit? I have heard one particular prominent pulpit personality, who is in Heaven now, regularly give testimony of his experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a dramatic narrative to listen to and it engendered a desire in the hearer to have the same experience. Yet, if we study the biblical passages regarding the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, we realize that an existential and metaphysical “experience” is not an indicator of a genuine filling of the Holy Spirit. Now, it is possible to have an experience upon being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, but that is not what we are to be looking for in regards to this important aspect of our Christian lives.
Furthermore, you will know that you have been filled or empowered with the Holy Spirit when you have an insatiable desire to share the Gospel with others. You will know that you have been filled by the Holy Spirit when you suddenly break out of your introverted nature and begin to talk to the stranger in line at Starbucks about their spiritual destiny. You will now that you have been filled with the Holy Spirit when you stand up in the middle of a public place (i.e. the university lecture hall) occupied by people who are antagonistic to Christ and begin to declare the truth of Christ. The empowerment of the Holy Spirit results in boldness and power to witness for Christ in personal evangelism.
In conclusion, personal evangelism as well as the outreach efforts of the local church are frustrated on a number of levels. We consistently fail to be effective in our witness for Christ in the community because of a lack of biblical understanding about the Great Commission. We fail to be effective in our witness for Christ because we have an improper attitude and improper motivation about personal evangelism. The final reason we fail in personal evangelism is that we are attempting to witness in the power of the flesh and ingenuity of our own mind rather than being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Personal evangelism is not a method but a philosophy of life based on being obedient to the Great Commission. Let us therefore reexamine our lives before Christ in this area of personal evangelism. Why are we trying to witness? Is there a personal benefit we are looking for in personal evangelism? Are we attempting to witness for Christ in the power of the flesh? May we become more effective in our personal evangelism by witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit and thus bring glory and honor to Christ as we are being an effective instrument in His hands.