Enemies of Evangelism 8
Let the servant of the Lord Jesus in this thing follow his Master, and plough deep with a sharp ploughshare, which will not be baulked by the hardest clods. This we must school ourselves to do. If we really love the souls of men, let us prove it by honest speech. The hard heart must be broken, or it will still refuse the Saviour who was sent to bind up the broken-hearted. There are some things which men may or may not have, and yet may be saved; but those things which go with the ploughing of the heart are indispensable; there must be a holy fear and a humble trembling before God, there must be an acknowledgment of guilt and a penitent petition for mercy; there must, in a word, be a thorough ploughing of the soul before we can expect the seed to bring forth fruit.
-C. H. Spurgeon
Witnessing is a wonderful thing. It is obedience in work clothes. It is an evidence of a genuine compassion for the lost. It carries with it the potential to rescue a soul from hell and to completely change the earthly, as well as the eternal destiny of a life. But witnessing that is poorly done is hurtful to the cause of Christ.
Thirty-one years ago, I went to my father and asked him to teach me how to witness to the lost. I have been soul winning on a regular basis for the entirety of the three decades since. In that time, I have seen countless people join the soul-winning ranks for a time only to leave them a little while later. Some quit soul winning because they discover that it is hard work. Some quit because they never learn how to conquer their fear. Others give up in discouragement. Still others become backslidden, spiritual casualties. But many of the people who initially began to witness with great enthusiasm and zeal drop out because they became disenchanted with the sloppy soul winning they saw around them.
The overreaction of a man who stops soul winning because he thinks others do it poorly is not right. It does, however, happen and happen often. Irresponsible evangelism not only badly damages the sinner, but it also damages the cause so dear to the soul winner's heart – personal evangelism.
I do not question the boldness of irresponsible soul winners. Indeed, their aggressive take-no-prisoners approach has much to recommend it. As Paul, I covet your prayers so that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6.19) But boldness alone is not enough to overcome the errors of irresponsible evangelism.
Acts 18 tells us the story a bold and eloquent man named Apollos. And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace: For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ. Apollos was bold, but boldness without careful and thorough accuracy is damaging.
In this sense, Apollos reminds me of the pharisaic Judaizers Paul dealt with in Romans 10. Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
Like those Jews, Apollos had great zeal and boldness. I am sure his motivations were only the best. But his applied zeal was pointing people toward the wrong solution. In this case, Apollos referenced John the Baptist, who directed Israel toward faith in a generic coming messiah, but not to Jesus as that Messiah specifically. In so doing, Apollos was not helping people nearly as much as he thought he was nor was he helping his own cause. In a very real sense, by pointing people to John's concept, he ran the risk of inoculating them from being willing to transition that general faith in a coming messiah into a specific faith in Jesus as the Christ. Apollos was also weakening the church, in general; for a church must be built specifically and pointedly around Jesus Christ Himself.
I like bold soul winners. However, I do not like bold soul winners who witness without careful attention to detail and without a painstaking commitment to a thorough explanation of the Gospel.
Likewise, I do not generally question the motive of careless soul winners, either. Such people entertain an overwhelming desire to get people out of Hell. Others want to see their chosen ministry or church expand. Oh, I am sure some are motivated by pride, by a desire to be seen as a master soul winner, et al, but such immaturity is rather uncommon in the average church. Yet even those with exclusively good motivations for witnessing are not protected from wreaking spiritual havoc. Peter had a wonderful motivation when he pulled out his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane but his methods left much to be desired.
Just because you are bold in your witness does not mean you are correct. Just because you are motivated scripturally in your witness does not mean you are on target. Zeal without knowledge makes grievous mistakes.
For example, consider those who use salesmanship to manipulate people into a profession of faith. I have some acquaintance with that vocation, having made my living at various times selling knives, cemetery property, insurance, and cars. I held the importance of keeping a positive mental attitude. I set goals and hit them. I am familiar with the Socratic Method. I bought into the idea that "no" really means "I need some more information." I know how to talk a man into a decision and out of his money even when it is not in his best interests. But high pressure tactics in the spiritual realm usually produce nothing more than statistics.
One of the churches I attended years ago decided to try to replicate the day of Pentecost. As you know, three thousand people were saved and baptized on that day. Our church decided to do the same. My little part in this mission was to take an empty bus to the worst projects in town. I was to fill it up and drive to the church with fifty or so unsaved young people. I was to deliver these young people to a rented sports arena where the preacher would give a salvation message. Before returning the kids to the bus and thus to home, we were instructed to ensure that all of these young people were baptized after the invitation had been given.
Imagine for a moment the scene. Thousands of people unused to church were crammed into a building not acoustically designed for church. The average worker to rider ratio was about one to thirty. The service stayed just this side of pandemonium only with the help of frequent promises of cash prizes. At the invitation, all the people were instructed to repeat the sinner's prayer after the preacher. From the pulpit, instructions were given to the workers to herd their charges toward the swimming pools for baptism. I duly tried for thirty minutes before giving up and taking my increasingly restive group back to the projects.
Later that evening after all the activities of the day were over, the pastor of the church solemnly opened an envelope. To a cacophony of cheering and shouting, he told us that we had baptized more than three thousand people that day. Then turning to a guest speaker on the platform he said, "And all of these people were dealt with one on one out of an open Bible."
I sat there stunned in my seat. I was not stunned by the number but by the assertion that all of this was done carefully. The pastor was either lying or ignorant of how it really went down. I choose to believe the latter. Did those people – whom I never saw before and would never see again – hear the Gospel? Yes. The preaching was plain and clear. But the service was mass chaos, there was zero actual conversational give-and-take to ensure understanding, and the mass assent was primed and impersonal.
I have literally seen soul winners place their feet inside a door so as to prevent the homeowner from closing it. I have seen others simply read a tract word for word with no effort to ensure an adequate understanding. I have heard soul winners flail around their New Testament hunting for the next verse with no plan or apparent organized method behind their madness. I have heard soul winners complain that it took the ungodly sum of fifteen minutes in order to get a crowd of teenagers to pray.
Is it any wonder that independent Baptists are routinely attacked for these things?
"Where are they all?"
"You're just pluckin' green fruit."
"Oh, that's just easy believism."
"Numbers are all you guys are after."
"That's just 1-2-3-pray-after-me nonsense."
I have heard all of these criticisms more times than I care to count. Such criticisms are essentially incorrect. Each of them has a valid answer. None of these criticisms are valid reasons to give up on personal evangelism. But can we blame those who hurl them at us? We are so often guilty of dealing carelessly and hastily with the never dying souls in front of us. May God forgive us!
In so doing, not only have we damaged those whom we have dealt with in such a negligent manner, but we have also damaged the very concept of evangelism itself. Evangelism is or at least ought to be the heartbeat of the church. But many a Christian and many a church has looked at such methods as I have described and said, "Well, if that's evangelism, I want no part of it." In their self-righteous overreaction, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and embrace some hollow excuse for their own lack of witnessing. All the while, they are blaming us.
Four years after the special evangelism day I described above, we were tasked with doing something similar again. This time I had a little more pull. I set up my own system so as to ensure the results would be entirely different. Yes, I filled up an empty bus in the projects. But I recruited many more workers so our ratio was about one to three instead of one to thirty. On the way to church I had those workers carefully rotate through the seats. Their job was first to ensure that these people had not already made a profession of faith. I had no interest in "saving" people twice in order to drive up my numbers. Following that, they carefully went through the plan of salvation in very small groups. They were instructed to ask for understanding after each step. They were instructed to ask questions at the end to verify comprehension. Lastly, they were told to emphasize that repeating a prayer would get no one into Heaven if there was no heart belief behind the verbal profession. Following all of this, the service – which was in a much smaller venue with a much larger worker base – was almost an anticlimax. I personally talked to each person that rode my bus who made a profession of faith, verifying their understanding along with their willingness to be baptized. I do not remember how many people were saved and baptized on that occasion, but God gave us a wonderful day.
Fast forward with me twenty years. An independent Baptist pastor friend of mine in Iowa has completely rejected personal evangelism. In fact, he openly speaks out against it. Not coincidentally, he was in attendance on the first day I described above. On the other hand, an independent Baptist pastor friend of mine in New Mexico promotes personal evangelism. He has led his church to be a soul- winning church. He was also in attendance on the first day I described above, but in addition, he was in attendance on the second day, as well. I remember he came up to me afterward and asked for a word in private. He shared with me how much he was dreading the day due to his previous experiences and how blessed he was to see the day done conscientiously and well.
I could repeat these two pastoral examples with hundreds of names. So many people who used to embrace the wonderful independent Baptist emphasis on personal evangelism have walked away from it. And it is our own fault.
Beloved, let us prepare carefully. Let us take our time – all the time that is needed and more. Let us reject the easy temptation of manipulation, and seek instead the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit. Let us beware the canned speech reeled off with nary a response. Let us seek an actual conversation and a clear understanding. Let us not minimize the plan of salvation but rather maximize it. Let us not chase professions but heart belief. For the sake of their souls, for the sake of impressionable soul winners who look up to us, for the sake of the cause of evangelism, and for the sake of our Saviour Who shed His blood on that cross, let us do these things the right way.
As a teenager I was privy to an unusual conversation between another young soul winner and a very old preacher. The young soul winner, breathless with excitement, rushed up and said, "I just led a guy to the Lord, and he didn't even know it!" The old preacher looked down over his bifocals and simply said, "No you didn't, son."
I do not believe Scripture teaches one must undergo a month's worth of Bible studies before there can be an understanding of salvation. The thief on the cross, the woman at the well, and Nicodemus were all won to Christ during a single conversation. But I do believe there must be a solid grasp of the negative and positive truths of the Gospel message. Such must be established with painstaking care.
One of my college professors earned my undying affection for many reasons but one was this: he taught us to deal with everyone like we would want someone to deal with our own child. Twenty years later as the parent of three children who have all made a profession of faith under my own guidance, I feel the truth of that thought most keenly. Would to God it would be felt more widely.
Where are we wrong? In this: our inexcusably irresponsible evangelism.