I KISSED EVANGELISM GOODBYE on this day a year ago. Well kind of….
For those who know me, this is an odd confession. On January 1, 2004, I made a commitment to share my every day. Then on July 31st of 2005, I heard “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” after Ray Comfort taught at our church. My eyes were then opened to the most effective way to share my faith.
Soon after, I taught The Way of the Master for seven years at my former church Hope Chapel—and everywhere, even in China! I also led evangelism teams to almost every large event in the L.A. area, including Michael Jackson’s memorial service, (we were outside in the streets), the Academy Awards, The Emmy Awards, the Lakers Championships, the L.A. Kings, and thirteen parades a year. I was quite the zealous Gospel proclaimer over the years, handing out perhaps, hundreds of thousands of tracts, preaching in the open air, and, of course, having hundreds of one-to-one conversations, reminding people how they have broken God’s Law and how they needed a Savior to be forgiven.
Not only that, our teams preached with Ray Comfort regularly in Huntington Beach and I served as a leader for three years with the Ambassadors’ Academy, the training arm of Living Waters Ministries.
I say all this so you will know that I was totally committed to the cause of preaching the Gospel, because, after all, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved. But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)
Then something changed as I was praying in my bed during my devotional time on that October 22nd Monday, 2018.
No, no, no, I’m not backsliding; I’m not going the Joshua Harris route, nor am I repudiating the necessity of teaching the Law and the Gospel. It’s what Scripture clearly teaches and is affirmed by such great saints of the past as John Wesley and George Whitefield. This is what Charles Spurgeon wrote: “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer. We should each say with Simon Peter, “I go fishing,” and with Paul our aim should be, “That I might by all means save some.” He calls evangelism an “irksome task,” but also “that most royal employment.”
What changed was my moving to a small town in Texas to pastor a church whose previous shepherd quit. Using the same methods of evangelism as always, I ended up alienating the people in this little community of 1,600 people. Long-time members left my church. My Elders were frustrated because they warned that “this style of evangelism wouldn’t work here.” I argued that nothing “works, it’s God who worked.” I refused to agree with their assessment because that would be denying Christ.
I remember when hearing “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” for the first time how on-fire I was for Jesus; our Pastor got complaint calls about me regularly. Because Hope Chapel was sued by the Del Amo Mall due to our evangelism efforts, I had to develop a policy about what to do when kicked out of the mall. (I’d run back in as soon as I was escorted out.)
At the time, I had 90% of the pastoral staff against me, but our pastor would let me defend myself, backing me up 100%. The police would try and stop us; congregants consistently told us how wrong we were, how obnoxious our team was.
The end result? By the time I moved to Texas, it had become the culture of our church. I was so blessed to have the backing of my pastor who had a heart for evangelism. We even had a multi-thousand-dollar budget.
This has not been the case in Texas. There was another huge blow-up in our fellowship because of my evangelism technique. The Elders again pleaded with me to consider changing my methods. I refused. Again.
On that morning I earnestly sought the Lord about all this. “God, this can’t go on. I do not want to be unsubmissive to my Elders, but I can’t see not sharing my faith. What do I do?” I read the Word diligently looking for answers. Here was my imaginary conversation with God:
Me: Do you want me to stop preaching the Gospel, Lord?
God: Go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation.
Me: Well, do want me to stop talking about Hell since it offends so many?
God: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Me: Perhaps I shouldn’t use the Law in my gospel presentation since so many get offended?
God: Therefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
We all know that the command to share our faith is in almost every chapter of the New Testament. I prayed some more, refusing to get on with my day until I got a clear answer. “I won’t leave my bed until you bless me!”
Then I got this answer: “Be relational in Johnson City. Share your faith another way by getting to know the people first.”
Were those my thoughts or the pizza from the night before? This sounded like “relational evangelism,” the excuse Christians use to NOT speak about their faith openly. Besides, I can develop a relationship in three minutes, earning the right to share the Gospel.
“God, if this is from you,” I said, getting ready to throw out my fleece, “then Ray Comfort will confirm this. I’m gonna call him now.” This seemed reasonable since Ray got me into this mess in the first place.
When he picked up the phone, (God bless him), I told him that I needed his advice. “Yes,” he replied, before I even said anything.
“What?” I replied.
With a chuckle in his voice he said, “That just seems like a good answer to tell anyone when they ask me for advice; so…yes.” I laughed, but this wasn’t funny. I was close to losing my job if this issue couldn’t be resolved. Would Ray confirm what I thought the Lord was telling me to do?
He essentially agreed with me—and went even further. He said, “When you are in a small town, it’s like living with your family. You wouldn’t give the Gospel to your family every day or every time they came to visit. No, you would do good works. You would let them see Christ in you.” 30 years ago, he bought groceries for his neighbors for a mile square around. He got back a lot of nice notes, like one from a lady who said she never received anything from the church. An atheist thanked him, and though he didn’t believe, he was deeply appreciative. “And when you deliver those groceries,” Ray said, “don’t even put a gospel tract in it or say God bless you. You have to live there. Be a living example of Christ’s love.”
Then, again, he went even further, to my amazement: “Don’t preach the Gospel at church every week either. Say something like, ‘IF you’d like to know more about the salvation message, I’d be happy to take you to lunch and we can talk.'”
Needless to say, I was shocked…and relieved. This was the answer to my prayer, the thought that I believe God gave to me. My Elders were right. This style of evangelism didn’t work in Johnson City. Time to try something new, something radical, something I’m not so used to doing. Ray Comfort, the master evangelist, the man who changed my Christian life, actually counseled me NOT to share my faith in my small town.
Wow! That was the Lord and not the pizza! But now what do I do? My identity for so long was as an evangelist, who am I now?
I felt like Ezekiel when God told him to cook his food over human dung. “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.” (Ezekiel 4:12) God relented.
I felt like Peter when he was told he could eat anything: “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10) In other words, God had a new plan, a revised plan for me to bring him glory. I just had to wait.
As you might imagine, this was a YUGE shift for me in my thinking and Christian practice. When I told Ray Comfort that I felt like I was ashamed of Jesus, he replied, “You ashamed? You’re the only one I know who ever preached inside an elevator. You have to live there. Be a living example of Christ’s love.” Then he quoted 1 Peter 2:15—”For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.”
I am no longer an “evangelist,” but the Pastor of Community Church of the Hills, and a pastor to the community of Johnson City. I will commit myself and our church to doing good works for the Lord. We will get involved in the needs of our area. I will still share my faith with strangers in Austin and cities outside my area. And, in the context of relationship, I will share in my community as well, when the right time arises.
I used to look at every person as if they had a 666 on their foreheads—just souls to be saved; now I see them with beating hearts and needs and concerns—and I want to be their pastor, to show them Christ’s love by serving them in the background and hopefully, somewhat humbly.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I hope to that for his glory.
Pray for me.
*The interview below was from 2010. This is what we actually did that Ray wouldn’t talk about.
**Go to my evangelism YouTube evangelism channel to see nearly 150 video from when I used to hit the streets: https://www.youtube.com/user/pastorsteveathope/videos. And here, too.
***In the last eight months, things started moving since I “stopped” evangelizing. Read about that here: https://conta.cc/35DJiNX
****And, if you’d like to subscribe either to my weekly or monthly newsletter, leave a comment.)
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