Monday, September 8, 2014

When the Encouragement Doesn't Come

A brother in Christ sent me the following email:
"There are a lot of brothers and sisters out on the streets daily and weekly reaching the lost, saving babies at the murder mills, etc., all over this country. Some of these brothers and sisters are very high profile and receive praises and encouragement with every post on Facebook or Twitter.

"But there are also brothers and sisters out on the streets in their own small towns, all over the country, going door-to-door, open airing at the local events, handing out tracts and pleading for the life of the unborn that do not get the encouragement they sometimes desperately need (even from within their own churches).

"Here is why I am thinking of this: I get encouragement from my wife, my two brothers-in-the-Lord who go out with me, other evangelists around the country, and even within my church. I praise God for this! They keep me grounded, encouraged and humbled.

"But what started me thinking about this was what happened to me this past Saturday after proclaiming the gospel at the local DMV. For the first time, in over a year of proclaiming the gospel at the DMV almost every Saturday morning, a Christian came down from the DMV line to the sidewalk I was on and shook my hand, hugged me, and praised God that I was out there proclaiming the gospel open-air. We talked for quite a bit and while he said he was encouraged by me, I was greatly encouraged by him coming down to talk to me. He told me that he had been talking to some of the brothers in his church to start doing some street evangelism, along with the retirement home evangelism they already do, and him hearing me open-airing was a confirmation to him to get out on the streets too.

"Like I said, I get encouragement. It is good to get encouragement. But how many brothers and sisters are out there that never get the encouragement they may desperately need? They pour out their hearts day in and day out in reaching the lost or pleading for the unborn and never hear words of encouragement from fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord."
Having a general idea of the demographics of the people who read my blog, I have no doubt there are readers who can truly relate to the above email.

The Blessing and Curse of a "Following"

The majority of committed, faithful, biblical, street evangelists don't have "followings." They don't have thousands of people "liking" their Facebook pages or "retweeting" their posts. The evangelists who do have "followings" are the exception and not the rule. And, while I am both content and grateful where the Lord has me, and while over time I have learned to stop running away from the reality that, for better or worse, people follow my ministry, there are times when I covet the relatively obscure life of most biblical evangelists.

I do appreciate and personally benefit from what little popularity I have in evangelism circles. Every day, I receive words of encouragement from around the world. Where the Lord has me in life and ministry has afforded me opportunities to travel around the world, preach in many different pulpits, and make life-long friendship with brothers and sisters in Christ--opportunities I likely would never experience had not the Lord called me to preach the gospel in the open-air. I am very grateful to the Lord and to the Bride of Christ for these many blessings.

However, with these many blessings comes a higher almost hyper-level of scrutiny, with trolls both inside and outside the Body of Christ just waiting, hoping, for me to make a mistake or to do or say something they can perceive and twist and spin into a mistake. And there are others who believe that being on a social media "friends" or "followers" list entitles them to a familial level of access. I can't tell you how many times people I have never met, and will likely never meet, the moment after accepting their "friend" request, immediately private message me asking me for my cell phone number. Most often I don't respond. But when I do respond, telling the person I don't give my personal contact information to people I don't know, it's amazing how many times people get angry and say words like, "I thought we were friends."

There are other times when people have "followed" or "friended" me on social media simply to gather quotes that they can later twist in attack blog articles.

I can only begin to imagine what it is like for people who are actually well-known--people like my pastors, John MacArthur and Phil Johnson.

Recently, a young man on social media was very disappointed, even incensed, that I blocked him on Twitter and Facebook. I honestly don't remember the exact reason why I blocked him. He has all but stalked me, publicly making his disappointment known. I just shake my head and think, "Dude, get a grip. Being on my 'friends' list on Facebook or being able to see my posts on Twitter should not be this big-a-deal. I'm not that important." Being relatively well-known in evangelistic circles on social media is both a blessing and a curse.

While God is sovereign over everything, there remains a fine line between being given by God a certain level of notoriety or popularity for the purpose of edifying the Bride of Christ in the area of evangelism and sinful self-promotion. And that fine line moves differently in each person's life based on the sinfulness or godliness in his life, on any given day. There is not, at least to my knowledge, a static line of demarcation between God-given popularity and man-driven self-promotion. This is why the evangelist, like every Christian, must be engaged in the day-to-day pursuit of holiness, be wary of believing his own hype, and have close friends who are willing to say, "Tony, I think you're crossing that line."

Popularity, no matter how little it may be, can be a great blessing. But even the smallest amount of popularity can come at a substantial price. So, before you wish or even pray for more popularity or for more attention to be given to your biblical evangelism ministry, give yourself a moment of pause--a time of reflection and wisdom and discernment-seeking. You may not, in the end, really want that for which you are wishing or asking.

Let that be an encouragement to you.

When the Encouragement Doesn't Come

Embrace Obscurity

With the above in mind, I want to encourage those who find themselves serving Christ on the streets in what, to them, seems like obscurity to embrace it. That's right. Embrace it.

Do not covet another evangelist's ministry or what you might perceive as popularity (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21; 7:25; Luke 12:15; Acts 20:33; Romans 1:29; 7:7-8; 13:9; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5; James 4:2). It will only make you bitter, discontent, and it will take your eyes off "the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12-16). James rightly and soberly wrote:
"Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." (James 3:13-18).
There is a level of purity (maybe better descriptive terms are "innocence" or "simplicity" or "humility") in a ministry nestled in obscurity. And it is a purity that can be easily lost when jealousy and selfish ambition is allowed to creep in. When this happens, an otherwise faithful open-air preacher might begin to determine where or when he will preach based almost exclusively on the size of the crowd before him. One-to-One conversations might be engaged only if the other person allows the conversation to be audio or video recorded. And the distribution of gospel tracts might become passe--an activity relegated to the newbie evangelist.

I can think of wonderful men and women of God engaged in faithful evangelistic ministry who are little known or virtually unknown to the evangelistic Christian masses (still, sadly, a relatively small mass), brothers and sisters in Christ who have been at it twice as long as I have, who have shared the gospel with far more people than I have--maybe more than I ever will. They've lived in an American Evangelical world and are, for all intents and purposes, ignored, even shunned, by not only their Christian friends, but their church families. They have gone long periods of time without so much as a hand on the shoulder from another Christian, saying to them, "I appreciate what you do for Christ and your love for the lost."

While these dear saints (Christians who will no doubt have more crowns to lay at the Master's feet than I will) certainly want to receive more encouragement than they do, they have a strength of character, a maturity of faith, and a humility of spirit that allows and enables them to embrace obscurity while drawing strength and encouragement from the Word of the Lord and the Lord of the Word.

Find Encouragement at the Source

The brother who sent me the email enjoys regular encouragement from other evangelists and his church family. I cannot praise and thank God enough for that. Would that every evangelist I know (either personally, or through social media, or through reputation) be encouraged every day by the Bride of Christ! Lord, please hear my prayer!

The reality is that some of God's greatest voices--from Noah, to Moses, to the prophets, to the apostles, to the great pastors and open-air preachers throughout Church history--lived lives, even if they were not obscure lives, that saw more discouragement than encouragement. Let's not forget that Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, saw just two converts in 40-50 years of prophetic ministry. Let's not forget Elijah tried to run from his prophetic responsibility (and for his life), all-the-while thinking he was the only man of God still standing (or hiding). Encouragement received was not the motivation of these men of God. Their motivation was love for God and love for their people. If encouragement came, it came from the Lord Himself.

Hans Nielsen Hauge, Robert Annan, Robert Flockhart: these great open-air preachers, known today by just a few lovers of Church history who include open-air preaching as part of that history, understood obscurity and discouragement. They understood being alone, traveling miles and miles on foot alone, being locked up alone in prison cells and asylums. But nothing could deter them. Nothing could cause them to take their bibles, hymnals, and gospel tracts and go home. Their love for Christ, their love for His Word, their love for the lost was simply too great.

Men gone for hundreds of years have been replaced, by the Lord, throughout the world, by faithful men who aren't bloggers. They don't have YouTube channels. They are not on Facebook or Twitter (God bless them). They don't lead para-church ministries. They don't have a "following." They simply follow Christ and preach the Word to everyone who can hear and to anyone who will listen. I would mention their names, but why would I intrude upon the obscurity they've embraced? I love them too much.

The above groups of men--whether long-gone or who today regularly battle discouragement, but remain faithful to the commitment to preach the gospel in the open-air--found/find encouragement at the Source. So, in addition to embracing obscurity (if that's where the Lord has you), I want to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ that are engaged in evangelism to find encouragement at the Source--the Word of God. And please allow me to get you started.

Find comfort in Him, my discouraged brother or sister.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me" (Psalm 23:4).

"You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again. I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel" (Psalm 71:20-22).

"This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life" (Psalm 119:50).

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

"Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word" (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).
You are never alone, my discouraged brother or sister.
"'I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.' Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, 'Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?' Jesus answered him, 'If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.

'These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid'" (John 14:18-27).

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (John 17:20-26).
Nothing you do for the Lord Jesus Christ, my discouraged brother or sister, is ever in vain.
"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
'O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?'
"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
And never forget, my discouraged brother or sister, you preach, you engage people in conversation, you distribute gospel tracts for an audience of One and for the glory of One.
"Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth; yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved" (1 Chronicles 16:28-30).

Has it been a while, my evangelistic brother or sister in Christ, since anyone encouraged you. I pray today will be the end of that season of neglect. I pray what I've written here, as simple as it is, is an encouragement to you.

Be encouraged, and don't quit, my brothers and sisters! If you find yourself evangelistically serving the Lord in a place or a season of obscurity, embrace it! Thank God for allowing you to serve Him without the often negative trappings of popularity. And when the moments of encouragement are few and far between, turn to the Source, dear brethren. Turn to Christ! Turn to His Word! Find encouragement on your knees or with your nose in His Book! Find the encouragement you need, whenever you need it, at the Source of life--life temporal and eternal.

To my Christian brethren who may not be climbing down into the well of street evangelism: are you holding the rope for someone who is climbing down into the well?

I am blessed to have many "rope holders" in my life--Christian brothers and sisters who pray for me and the work to which God has called me. I have many "rope holders" in my life who are slow to criticize, but are very quick to provide a word of encouragement--an email, a Twitter or Facebook comment, and note waiting for me in the mail box (yes people still write letters).

How about you? Do you know a brother or sister in Christ who faithfully distributes gospel tracts, more often than not alone? When was the last time you prayed for him or her? When was the last time you prayed and then told your brother or sister you were doing so?

When was the last time you asked your brother or sister who stands on a corner, rain or shine, holding a cross or a Christ-honoring sign how they were doing? When was the last time you asked him in an inquisitive, caring, non-interrogative way about his ministry (it is a ministry, by the way)?

Do you know an open-air preacher in your church? When was the last time (if you ever have) asked him if you could join him and pray for him while he preaches? Are you there to tend to your brother's physical and emotional wounds when he comes off the God-hating, unloving field of battle? Or do you keep a discreet distance so as not to get the stench of the unwashed masses on you? Or is it that being in the presence of someone who truly loves Jesus and the lost makes you feel too guilty to befriend and pray for the open-air preacher?

Yep. Consider yourself spanked. You'll survive.

There's likely a brother or sister in Christ, in your church, who is faithful to proclaim the gospel in any one of many ways who could use your encouragement, right now. What will you do? There are people you likely know, Christians who are trying to obey Christ and reach the lost with the gospel who need encouragement, right now. What will you do?

How do you feel when the encouragement doesn't come?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Long story, but a few years ago I fell hard. I tried to walk away from my faith but couldn't. This go-around, I decided to do everything I do as quietly as possible. I appreciate the encouragement I used to get from other church members about my teaching (Sunday School) or outreach, but in retrospect it really just added a new temptation. Pride. Also, being "known" in my local church just put a big target on my chest. People would get angry, jealous (even though I was and am not anything to be jealous over) argumentative, etc. IN MY CHURCH. I now evangelize outside the church and tell almost no one about my "ministry". I like it this way. Let the warfare come from outside the church.


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