Sunday, October 5, 2014

When There's No Visible Return on Your Investment

Noah was an open-air preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) for 150 years. Only seven people took heed to what he said, and they were the members of his family. Isaiah's prophetic ministry spanned some 40 years. God told Isaiah at the start of his ministry that the people of Judah would not be able to understand or perceive and that God would make the hearts of the people dull (Isaiah 6:9-10).The prophet Jeremiah served the Lord for 40 years and saw only two converts--Baruch (Jeremiah 45:1-5) and Ebed-Melech (Jeremiah 38:1-16; 39:16-18). By modern American Evangelical standards, these three men of God were utter failures when it came to evangelism. It was hard for them to develop relationships. They struggled gauging the felt needs of the people. They didn't get the whole "contextualization" thing. Their messages were so hard and judgmental by today's evangelical standards that they were party buzz killers. And of course, there was hardly any visible return on their investments of time spent trying to reach their countrymen with nothing more than truth.

Guys like Noah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah would probably be street preachers, today. They would probably do door-to-door evangelism. They would probably do rather untoward things like shove their beliefs down people's throats by engaging perfect strangers in conversation, or violate some arbitrary, modern, missional protocol by giving gospel tracts away with Halloween candy or with Rice Krispie treats around Christmas. No, the great preachers and prophets of old would likely be seen as getting in the way of American Evangelicalism's efforts to woo people to Jesus without being too evangelistic. According to American Evangelical standards, Noah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were.....ineffective.

I wish what I just said was hyperbolic, but it's not. Sadly, it's not.

Today, I received the following question from Hank Williams:
"What should our response be, according to Scripture, when our evangelizing returns little or no visible results, such as was the case in Noah's, Isaiah's, and Jeremiah's day?"
Hank's is a very good question.

It's easy for a Christian who is engaged in any one of a number of legitimate forms of evangelism to get discouraged, especially if his preferred form of communicating the gospel is considered passe, a waste of time, or annoying by American Evangelical standards (they're not really standards, but simply preferences). It's discouraging for a Christian to be asked by other Christians (often Christians who think they're engaged in evangelism, but likely aren't), if what he's doing is effective. Is he seeing results?

I've been asked these questions too many times to count. When I'm asked, I respond with a question. "Define effectiveness for me?" The answer I receive usually has something to do with putting a number to how many people I've seen come to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

"How do you know that someone who prays a prayer and asks Jesus into their heart, or responds to a call to walk down to a stadium floor, or raises his hand with every other head bowed and all eyes closed, has really come to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?" I ask.

"Well, I don't"

"Then, you don't know if the way you are doing evangelism is effective, do you?"

"I guess not."

"Then why would you try to discourage me by questioning the effectiveness of what I'm doing when you can't be certain if what you're doing is effective?"

"I guess you're right."

Then, if the person hasn't walked away in a self-righteous huff, I encourage him (or her) to do evangelism (explaining that there is no evangelism without the verbal or written communication of the gospel) in keeping with his personality, the context in which he lives, and the gifts and talents God has given him. I make sure the Christian brothers and sisters with whom I speak understand that they don't have to do evangelism the way I do it, but they are obligated, commanded by God to communicate the gospel. "If you don't want to do evangelism the way I do it, at least do something."

Maybe no one is asking you to quantify your evangelistic effectiveness. Maybe you're like Hank and you're asking yourself the question. Maybe you think about your evangelism efforts and you compare them to the Church in Acts 2, or you compare your efforts to the apostle Paul's or Whitefield's or Spurgeon's. Or maybe you compare your efforts to modern-day evangelists like of Greg Laurie or Luis Palau--men who fill stadiums and declare thousands of people saved, welcoming them to the family of God, because the respondents prayed a prayer and asked Jesus into their heart (a practice with no biblical support, and responsible for an untold number of false converts).

Maybe you've been handing out tracts, engaging people in conversation, or even open-air preaching for years and have yet to see a person come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. You look back to biblical and post-biblical history. You look at some of your contemporaries. You see what the Lord apparently has done and is doing through the evangelistic efforts of others. You drop your chin and your shoulders; you think "What's the use," and you consider quitting.

Those closest to me know that there are times when my biblical counseling is limited to just three words. If you're thinking like the Christian I just are the three words.....KNOCK IT OFF!

That's right. Knock it off. Stop it.

If you remember anything in this article, remember this. The only time you fail in evangelism, presuming you're doing it biblically, is when you fail to evangelize.

Effectiveness in evangelism is never based on numbers--how many people you talk to, how many tracts you've distributed, how many people in the crowd when you open-air preach, how many relationships you've started, how many people you've seen repent and believe the gospel.

Effectiveness in evangelism is not based on "how many." Effectiveness in evangelism is based on "how faithful"--how faithful you are to love God and love people--how faithful you are to love Jesus enough to tell others about Him, and how faithful you are to love lost people enough to warn them of God's pending wrath against sin and articulate and proclaim to them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are faithful Christians who seem to produce a great amount of tangible fruit through their evangelistic efforts. There are faithful Christians who see very little fruit from their evangelistic efforts. There are faithful Christians who see very little fruit from their evangelistic efforts, completely unaware of how many people have come to repentance and faith in Christ, as a result of, for instance, reading a gospel tract they distributed. The common denominator in each case? Faithfulness.

The Christian who seems to see people come to repentance and faith in droves is no more effective than the Christian who has very little tangible fruit to show for his or her efforts. Faithfulness: faithfulness to the two Greatest Commandments and the Great Commission makes every biblical evangelistic effort effective, event when there's no visible return on your investment.

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