I have been thinking about the subject of what is termed 'evangelism' lately and have come to realize more of my misconceptions that have kept me in fear and crippled me from being more effective. As with nearly every other issue in religion, the more I learn of the true meaning of words and the higher purpose that heaven has for everything we are told about in the Christian walk, the more sense it makes. Yet at the same time these new insights usually contradict accepted assumptions.
Some time ago I learned from a wise minister some very important things about this idea of evangelism that really startled me and that I need to bring into focus again. I say that I consider him a wise man because he was years ahead of most of us in realizing that the really important thing, the primarily vital part of living as a Christian is to put at the very top of our priorities cultivating an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and getting to know His heart in our own heart. Any other direction will only lead to weakness, confusion, pride, hypocrisy or some other distraction designed to keep us from discovering the only Source of life for ourselves.
This minister spoke on the issue of evangelism from a radically different perspective than I had ever heard before, yet the more I pondered his ideas the more sense they made in context with everything else I had been learning about the truth. He stated that the real purpose of evangelism is not so much to win others to join the church or be converted or even come to know Jesus for themselves as important as that is; the real purpose for evangelism from heaven's perspective is for our own benefit. He stated bluntly that the soul that needs saving and that will benefit the most is our own when we engage in the privilege of introducing other people into a saving relationship with Jesus.
Furthermore, this wise man said that if we ignore the opportunities that heaven sends us to introduce others to Jesus, the great danger is not that they will be lost because of our indifference but that our own hearts will become hardened and our own eyes will become more and more dim to seeing the glory of God. It is primarily for our own sake that God invites and urges us to get involved in sharing the good news about Himself with others, not for their sake.
At first this concept seems absolutely backwards to everything I have been taught in church and violates nearly all my presuppositions and challenges my motives. I know that even yet when this idea is discussed, even right now as I again revisit it, my own memories instantly begin bringing up quotes that seem to support the guilt-based motivation to compel me to go out and win souls for Jesus lest they be lost for eternity because of my negligence. This guilt-based approach to living was integrated into nearly every doctrine I was taught in religion growing up and became the driving force of the legalism that has plagued me for so many years and still does to some extent even today. I am ready to admit that legalism is a dead horse that we need to quit trying to ride into the kingdom, yet there are still some elements of that belief that cling to my conscience and continue to haunt me when triggered by discussions such as this.
But rather than rushing to line up texts and quotations to avoid facing this issue objectively, and considering that previous assumptions may be questionable, I believe it is time to challenge every belief, every doctrine, every assumption I have lived under in the clearer light of the emerging truth about God that He is so graciously bringing to my awareness today. I believe strongly that we are quickly coming into the time of the angel of Revelation 18 when the glory of God is beginning to fill the whole earth with the real truth about what God is like.
On one side, those who continue to cling to and promote dark and conflicting pictures of God will find themselves defensive about their traditions and opinions and will resist this glory. But those whose hearts are aching under a weight of guilt and fear that has burdened too many of us for so long will respond with joy as the truth about God's love and grace takes on fresh new dimensions and brings new life surging into our own hearts changing our lives from the inside out.
If I rely on old motivations to compel me to evangelize for the church, these motives of guilt and fear will sooner or later destroy the love and peace and joy that have slowly been taking root in my heart from new revelations about God that He has been giving me over the past 20 years. It is impossible to reconcile opposing ideas about God into an amalgamation of religion and still embrace the real truths about the gospel as I have been learning them recently. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV) If I allow fear to remain as part of my portfolio as a Christian then I am attempting to live a compromise between Satan's kingdom and God's kingdom and it will never succeed.
This is the fundamental problem with the way I have seen much evangelism carried out in my lifetime. I am not saying people have never done it from right motives. There are many wonderful Christians who have selflessly given themselves as channels of God's love to others in evangelism. But what I am saying is that far too much evangelism training and many of our usual approaches to how we promote traditional evangelism is based on faulty and questionable motivations relying on avoidance of guilt, use of fear and trying to avoid having God get upset with us.
Growing up I came to resent appeals for evangelism precisely because of this issue of others using fear to motivate me to do whatever activity the leaders wanted to get us to do. Whether it was handing out religious tracts or Ingathering activities or witnessing (now there's a highly charged and misunderstood word), everything was usually connected with the use of fear. All sorts of techniques were employed and often included potential punishment or shame if we were not willing to 'stand up for Jesus'. But if you had any idea of how much fear, guilt and shame my heart already was enduring from growing up steeped in legalism, you might begin to understand that I simply couldn't take on any more of these debilitating feelings without withdrawing or reacting with rebellion. And that is exactly what my heart did even when it was not publicly seen.
Because of this I have spent most of my life skirting this issue of evangelism. After all, I could never make much sense out of calls for us to go out and 'witness' for Jesus, bring people to Jesus, twist people's arms and minds to force them to join my church (the real underlying but unspoken message I was getting from my instructors).
Such thinking and activities didn't make much sense because the mixed messages about God we were supposed to offer to others were so confusing that I couldn't see how they would improve their lives while they were making me so miserable myself. Why would I want to urge others to join my church and become as sad and fearful as I felt under a heavy load of guilt and shame, constantly feeling that God was looking to find any fault in my life so He could accuse me and keep me out of heaven? Why would I want to ask others to serve a God that claimed to be kind and good and loving while at the same time threatening to torture them in hell if they didn't decide to agree with Him in every detail? (Oh, I forgot – we weren't supposed to talk about that too soon.)
You might react by reminding me that our version of hell is abbreviated from the Baptist or Catholic versions. But that was small consolation for me. Whether I burned for eternity or for a shorter time was not the main issue. Trying to love a God who threatened me in such a way if I was not willing to love Him with my whole heart, who I felt was constantly looking for the smallest sin in me that I had overlooked or had failed to confess as an excuse for Him to burn me in hell even a little bit prevented me from feeling attracted to Him much at all. I must note that these thoughts were not consciously processed in my mind but as I look back now I realize they were had real influence at my subconscious level.
So to ask me to go out and 'witness' to others about this 'wonderful' God and expect me to compel others to join my church (or suffer similar consequences I was facing if I didn't participate in evangelism) just didn't make a lot of sense or appeal to my heart at all. This legacy of mixed motivations for evangelism has seriously affected my feelings associated with it and has kept me on the margins. In reality my heart has been waiting for better news to come along before I was willing to share it with others – news that would be so good it would be worth sharing spontaneously.
And speaking of better news, the great thing is that God has not left me in that darkness of confusion about how He feels about me and His plans for my life. I have been learning that nearly everything I assumed about God acquired from the religion I grew up in was confused at best and downright false in some cases. My religion along with my perceptions of God was riddled with false ideas from Satan to keep me in fear and rebellion against God even though the people who taught me all this likely never intended it that way. Looking back I see that evangelism itself has become something of a barometer in my life that I can note to see how just much my picture of God has been improving.
As I mentioned previously, it simply didn't make much sense at all to go out and share a God with others who only kept me intimidated myself and repressed my own heart. Most of the words we were supposed to use made little sense to me anyway so why should I string them together like I was taught in order to get others to join my group and join my misery with me? For instance, I was taught that the word gospel means 'good news', yet I could see little about what I was taught that sounded like good news to me. I also noticed that we used 'deceptive advertising' when we talked about evangelism itself. We said we were leading people to Jesus which sounded plausible enough. But then when I watched people claiming to do this I noticed that while they were baptizing people into the church these new converts to the church had little or no clue about what it means to know Jesus personally. They were carefully taught to know the right answers to pre-prepared questions so they could get in the door, but 'coming to know Jesus' simply meant being able to give the proper answers to predetermined questions while in their personal lives they really had only taken on a relationship with an institution.
All of these issues still are here today. Many of the same sentiments about God are still cherished in the teachings and implications of many within the church and with many in leadership positions. Our church sends out mixed signals when it comes to the gospel though I am happy to see that more and more people are challenging that status quo vigorously. But I still see hypocrisy in saying we want to bring people to Jesus when the bottom line is that we really want to increase our tithe base or enhance our membership numbers to look good with the conference. We are reluctant to admit this openly but the reality still remains. Bringing people into personal accountability and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ above their relationship with any church stills seems to be something we are reluctant to encourage and this remains a real concern for me.
On the other side, as God has been bringing more light into my own life He has been exposing and expelling hundreds of lies embedded in my mind and my perceptions about religion over the past 20-30 years. He has been drawing me closer to His heart with cords of love (Hosea 11:3,4) and I am beginning to catch a better glimpse of what I can believe is actually good news. The fresh revelations of love, compassion, mercy, goodness and kindness that I am discovering in the Word of God in contrast with the religion of my past is truly worthy of being called good news, even good enough to want to share with others without being compelled through guilt trips or threats or intimidation.
Now I find myself voted in as the chairman of evangelism in my local church (ironically the same church where I first acquired most of my religious baggage to start with). I still find myself facing many of the issues noted above and I have to grapple with old feelings coming to the surface again. It is now that I need to sort out even more clearly the right and wrong motives for what we have typically called evangelism. Doubtless at times I will find myself at odds with others who cling to more traditional beliefs about this word, yet I also find an emerging environment more sympathetic with my concerns and more open to challenging old assumptions.
I also sense that God may well be arranging circumstances to open up new opportunities for us to experiment and to discover the 'old paths' once again (Jer. 6:16), to rediscover the original meaning and intent of many of these words when they are viewed in their original context. I have believed for some time that we have little clue about the true nature of the gospel that the early church embraced, for if we really saw the gospel in its original form with our hearts we could not restrain ourselves from bursting with enthusiasm and passion for God just as the early believers did even in the face of intense opposition and persecution. It is because we don't have a clear perception of the true gospel that we find ourselves trying to work up motivation by other means.
I believe that rather than trying to achieve outward momentum by forcing ourselves to evangelize or allowing selfish corporate motives to stay in place, the only way we will experience true revival and genuine growth is to individually search for the truth about God with all our hearts and encounter His power and passion infused into our souls personally. When we allow the truly good news about God to light His fire on the inside we will see more clearly the futility of trying to produce artificial results on the outside using any other means.
This is why true evangelism is more about saving our own soul rather than thinking it is our job to save other souls. How arrogant of us to think we can save anyone in the first place. Do we really believe that God is dependent on us to bring someone to Him or they will be lost without our intervention? Do we think God is so hampered that the lost will have no other opportunity to learn the truth about Him other than through us? That is blasphemy! God has infinite resources to make sure every soul has a fair chance to come to know Him and be saved. He intends for us to be involved in that process for our benefit and is not stymied by our failures in assignments He gives for us to cooperate with Him.
The souls that need saving the most – the only souls we are totally responsible for is our own soul. Seeking to save 'the lost' out there is just part of the growth process designed to save our own souls. God is ultimately the one responsible for saving every soul. But He knows that if we do not cooperate in His work for others that our own growth and our own destiny will be affected more than theirs.
If we are disturbed about the idea of saving ourselves, I am not speaking here of self-generated salvation. The word salvation actually means the salvaging of our lives, minds and hearts to be restored into a perfect reflection of God's character that we were designed to look like. Of course we can't do this ourselves, but if we don't cooperate in God's process of restoration by the internal work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts it cannot be finished. True salvation is not an outward work to force us to look good; it happens through a transformation of our heart motives, feelings, beliefs and our perceptions of reality. The Holy Spirit is in charge of this job but we have the vital part of needing to choose continuously to cooperate with Him in opposition to our sinful desires and natural selfishness.
One more thing I want to note in regards to evangelism. We too often mistakenly assume in our efforts to evangelize that we need to persuade everyone to adopt our opinions and views about God and to subscribe to our interpretation and list of doctrines. But I have come to realize that not even Jesus conducted His effort in this manner. This notion actually violates the law of liberty and freedom that is most highly valued in heaven. We are never to coerce others to change their minds in order to align them with our opinions; rather we are to cooperate with God in ministering to those whom He knows are waiting and ready for greater light, who are ripe for real truth and new life. It is not our job to make sure every interest we receive becomes one of our denomination. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are in charge of evangelism but rather position ourselves as supporting personnel in God's work who is gathering together His children He has in waiting. This attitude can remove a tremendous burden of guilt and fear that has too often contaminated the work of evangelism for so long. This approach will infuse it with a new sense of freedom, joy and excitement as we realize that we can simply work alongside God to watch the miracles He is ready to do both in other's hearts and even more importantly in our own.
The Holy Spirit knows precisely the hearts of every person and knows when each individual is ripe for harvest, ready to connect with the body of Christ whatever that looks like. When we mistakenly think it is our job to convince people who are not ripe, who's hearts have not been readied for what we have to offer, then we will often find ourselves frustrated and will feel guilty we have not done enough or we may get discouraged that our efforts are not producing results we think are supposed to happen.
I know that I still need more clarification about this in my own mind. But I am increasingly convinced that, as Jesus demonstrated, our job is not to evangelize everyone but is to be so in tune with the guidance of the Spirit that we will be led by Him to connect with the individuals He has ready for what we uniquely have to share with them. Of course we need to be sure that what we have to offer is a true gospel that is alive and burning in our own souls and is actually good news. This is why I feel it is so important that before we attempt to engage in evangelism for others that we make sure our own hearts have come under intense conviction by God's Spirit ourselves and that the message we offer others animates our own heart and is awakening more love than fear.
We can only share with others authentically what we know and are experiencing ourselves. If we are not passionately and growing in love with God so much that it permeates every part of our own lives and all of our relationships, then likely the message we are offering to others is lacking in power and authenticity. We will then continue the old game of trying to convince people to join our church while failing to connect them effectively with the real and only Source of life.
I feel it vitally important that we examine our own hearts in the light of the Word of God to see if we are actually in the faith of Jesus (2 Cor. 13:5) or are just part of an institutional belief system, a church that we call 'the faith' but is really just a collection of people who have been able to answer enough questions in an examination to join a club. Unfortunately most of us joined this club through this method even though we may have been sincere. But now it is time to repent and discover God for ourselves for real.
Every method we consider as a means of attracting others to join our fellowship must be examined in the light of the real truth about what it means to be a actual follower of Jesus, not how they fit into our requirements for joining our denomination. We must resist the temptation to assume that the two are one and the same thing. Most of us know how to keep up religious appearances but far too many have little experience in knowing God intimately. It is vital that we give God full access to our own prejudices, our feelings, our fears and our hidden pain and to recognize His authority in our lives above that of any other. As this begins to have its effect in our own heart, then evangelism will take on new dimensions and we will begin to see results far beyond anything we can ever imagine presently.
If we do not first become filled with the Spirit of God and empowered by the passionate love of God, then whatever we do in the name of evangelism for God will have little lasting effect. Personally I want to enter into the joy of my Lord by entering into His work using His methods. I feel very inadequate but am reminded that God does not call the trained but empowers and trains those who respond to His calls. I tremble when I sense how clumsy I am in social skills, how easily I can offend people and turn them off. I feel God is taking a huge risk if He thinks I can be an effective partner in this work with Him. Yet at the same time I am reminded that all of us are works in progress and God has chosen to utilize us to work with Him as part of our own salvaging process if we are willing, otherwise known as 'working out our own salvation with fear and trembling' (Philippians 2:13). I am willing to move forward but I have to trust that God will direct where my foot lands each time it comes down.