Early in the twentieth century, Baptist evangelists preached through rural Mississippi and Alabama with such effectiveness that moonshiners could no longer sell their whiskey: All their customers were getting converted! In desperation, the whiskey sellers hired two men to murder one of the leading
Pistols in their hands, the assassins waited in
the dark outside a country church where their target was preaching. The evangelist spoke with burning intensity about heaven and hell, his voice ringing out into the night. When everyone had gone, he turned out the church
lights and stepped outside. The killers approached him, pistols in hand.
But instead of shooting the evangelist, they handed him their guns. “We came here to kill you, but we couldn’t,” they said. “We heard your preaching and we believed it. We’re now on the same side.”
That story was told to me years ago by a pastor in Alabama. The Baptist evangelist was his grandfather. The story stayed with me. It is compelling drama and a parable of our position in an increasingly dangerous and demoralized world. Either we evangelize our
generation with new power or its members are going to kill us. The bad guys are waiting for us ‘out there,’ and intend to do us in … We need an evangelism with enough strength to get the bad guys before they get us. – C. John Miller (Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1997, p. 1-2.)
The Western church has not faced this grave a situation in centuries. The newspapers scream at us: terrorism, mass murder, abortion, and many other ways that people made in God’s image are dehumanized and devalued. No person on this side of the Roe vs. Wade Decision, the Columbine High School shooting; the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center / Pentagon / another plane full of people; and the Virginia Tech. shooting can deny this with intellectual integrity. We have rapidly become a society which can rightfully face the judgment of God for the values we hold most dear.
Our churches are not effectively reaching the culture outside our doors in our own neighborhoods. Our society and its values are bringing reproach on the gospel of Christ as missionaries try desperately to bring that message to the very part of the world that produces the most dangerous terrorist threats that we face. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can change hearts.
But how are we to do this? Once again I turn to Miller:
…those of us who lead must modify the way we train believers to think of witnessing. I have in view the image of evangelism as fishing for the lost. Too often we have only stressed the single fisherman with his pole. There is certainly a place for him, but there is a danger that the “lone angler” concept will place undue emphasis on witnessing skills, techniques, and special gifts, discouraging Christians who lack these distinctive features. It is clear that for the church in Acts, evangelism was something that involved everyone – and they were often involved together. We need to focus on the biblical metaphor of fishermen pulling together as a team on the same net. Our shared life as the company of Christ’s redeemed is at the very center of our gathering in of the lost. (Miller, p. 71.)
Miller also mentions “hospitality,” where “our material gifts and our gift of the gospel are accepted as we also offer ourselves to [non-Christians].” What stands in our way: “The dispossessed of the earth are often the unwashed, and sometimes they are the destructive.” It seems to be nothing but a dedication to our own happiness and material positions. (Miller, p. 77)
An encouraging fact of recent church life is the return to small group meetings and ministry. These groups, often meeting at non-traditional times that fit peoples’ hectic schedules, are improving the way evangelism is done. Anyone who doubts their effectiveness and the biblical support for them should re-read the book of Acts. This is only one of the encouraging things we can find.
One of the truly great things about the Emergent Church conversation is its unflinching determination to be a witness in word and deed. I think of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, among others. Outside Emergent, I hold up Northpoint Church in Atlanta, Georgia. No church is perfect this side of heaven, and no church or pastor should want to be immune to criticism. (That kind of pride “goes before a fall.”) We may disagree with some of what is done and said in some churches, but we can never forget the point: reaching a lost and dying world. We must find examples to follow. If there are none, we must lead the way. We cannot ignore opportunities to involve those outside the church in a vital community filled with people who can declare the gospel in word and deed.
Will a change in methods be the answer. Not in and of itself. Carl Trueman, in his excellent essay “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” writes:
… to reduce the Western Christianity’s difficulties to the level of bad technique is to miss the point: the real problem is ultimately one of morality, not methodology. Quite simply, the evangelical church has sold its soul to the values of Western society and prostituted itself before the Golden Calf of
materialism …We have bought into the idolatry of the secular values of health,
wealth, and happiness, and until we all, on both the individual and corporate level, realize this, repent of it, and give ourselves in painful, sacrificial service to the Lord who bought us, we will see no improvement.” (The Wages of Spin, Geanies House Fearn, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004, p. 162)
Our churches battle secularism on a subtle level that we have yet to truly face. Secularization includes materialism. We are in danger of God’s judgment for the very family values both major political parties try to project: Democrats with their freedom of choice on abortion and Republicans with their materialism. I pray for Christian statesmen and pastors and laypeople to “stand in the gap” for the United Sates of America.
We need a fresh wind of the Spirit. We need the power of God in a new way. May God grant us the repentance and faith we most certainly need to forge ahead in the greatest battle ever fought, evangelism, for the greatest prize ever coveted, God’s glory, in the greatest arena ever visited, the entire world. What will our part be? How will God use us to bring about His drama so that, "They shall not hurt or destory in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9, ESV)?