As part of my teaching responsibilities at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando I teach several classes that fall under the category “practical theology.” I will not bore you with a discussion on how I believe all theology should be practical, but go on to say one class that falls under that designation is Evangelism. As required by our academic dean I had done my due diligence and submitted the syllabus for the class several months earlier. This particular class was a summer intensive and therefore needed special attention. As I reviewed the materials and prepared my lectures, I found myself highly skeptical of my own material! I was going to make twenty plus students sit Monday through Friday from 9 to 4 for this? Not only was it boring, but it was the “same ole stuff.” Though I had consulted with a close friend and faithful evangelist – who interestingly was the one who came up with the two diagnostic questions used in Evangelism Explosion – something simply was not right.
As someone who planted a church and spent over a decade training and coaching church planters, I had a good grasp of what methods of evangelism were working and what ones weren’t. I understood the challenges of evangelism in a post modern, post Christendom context presented and was prepared to address that in the class. Nevertheless, I was convinced that what I was offering would inform, but not motivate. I scrapped the entire course outline and started over.
As any good preacher should do, I set aside time to pray and reflect on what was going on in my heart. Then it hit me. I was not excited about the material because it was not addressing the issues in my own heart! I was like a revival preacher condemning the evils of alcohol while sipping on whiskey in a Styrofoam cup to get me through the sermon! How could I effectively teach others to do evangelism when it as not a rhythm in my own life.
Some of you may assume the professor teaching on a topic they no longer practice is typical seminary modus operandi, but in my case something had changed. Looking back over my twenty five years of church ministry, which included youth ministry, church planting, and serving as a lead pastor, I have been honored to see people from every stage of life come to faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, both students and parishioners have often heard me say that as a pastor my two favorite events are the birth of a new child, and the rebirth of convert. Both are exhilarating and joyous occasions.
So what changed in my life? How had I gone over two years without seeing any conversions, or more poignantly, shared the Gospel? Unfortunately, those two years pointed back to the time when I left my church ministry and started working at the seminary. Prior to joining the seminary, I had served as the lead pastor of the church my wife and planted south west of Atlanta, Georgia. There, we were surrounded by two groups of people. Those who participated in our church, and an assorted mix of non-Christian friends we had come to love during our time there. The non-Christian friends were a regular part of our lives, and they watched us as we lived our lives in front of them. Please understand, these were not people we simply targeted to do some “life on life” evangelism with, they were our friends. In fact, at one difficult point in the early years of our church plant, one of them heard that due to financial constraints we weren’t going to get paid that month. One morning while I was mowing the grass behind our house, he stopped me, and said, “I made a little extra money this week and thought you could use this.” After handing me an envelope he left. Looking inside, I found a $1000 dollars in cash! My family’s ministry story is riddled with accounts of non-Christians who loved on us!
It has long been our prayer that God would give us the grace so that our “daily lives may win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thessalonians 4:12). And I believe God heard our prayer as we became a source of hope and comfort. These “outsiders” were attracted to our lives and regularly asked us to pray for them, and sought counsel from us. These friends introduced us to other friends, and when there was a funeral or a wedding, I was often invited to not just conduct it, but join in with the family.
In moving to Orlando, it was my intent to establish new friendships in the community where we live. I was convinced that working at the seminary, and not serving as a pastor would actually give more time to develop new relationships. Much to my shame the opposite had happened as I let seminary work consume my life. Without being aware of what was happening, I had not only moved to a new city, but for the first time in my ministry career I had moved into the Christian ghetto. In fact, we had become so busy that hospitality in our home ceased to exist. Oh, we had an excuse! Not only were we too busy, but we had rented a 1950’s Florida style cottage in Winter Park as we looked for a home to purchase. It was small, quirky, mustard colored; a house waiting to be torn down for a new more glorious “mcmansion” to be built in its place. In other word’s we were living in the “hood” of our neighborhood!
Our entire ministry was either at the seminary, preaching in different churches or the Sundays we did children’s church! My time and energy was spent entirely on fellow Christians! And I was going to teach a class on evangelism! I was so convicted by this that I almost went down to witness to some homeless people. And I was only considering that because I had no trips planned where I could witness to the person sitting next to me on the plane!
I didn't end up doing any sniper evangelism, but rather spent time with the Father confessing the coldness of my heart and asking him to show me what to do with the class. As I prayed, studied and reflected, God used my failure’s to put together a perspective on evangelism that is unique in the United States and Canada. It is a model rooted in “being” rather than “doing.” It does not require intense training, there is nothing you need to memorize, and is not just for those with the “gift” of evangelism. It is for every follower of Jesus.
Over the coming months I am going to take you along with me on the journey of turning this class into a book. It won't be a model for quick evangelism training in preparation for a short term mission trip or to work at a soup kitchen. This project is for those who want to experience the Gospel in a new and deeper way and “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19a). It is for those who long to personally experience the re-birth of someone they deeply love. This is for those of you want to join in the great adventure of seeing King Jesus “seek and save the lost.”
Stay tuned as we start by looking back at how we got here . . evangelistically speaking that is!