“Their inclination to hide is as old as the garden, they retreat from God not in fear but in contempt, not behind bushes but beneath ignorance and indifference. Why then do we hide when we possess so great a catalogue of grace? May God grant us strength to resist denial and courage to say what Peter would not, ‘yes I am His disciple.’" -- Ronald Nash
There are common phrases in the evangelical world, rallying cries of evangelism that find their root in Scripture. “We must reach the nations,” “we must preach to unreached people groups.” These phrases are supplemented by organizations that highlight our mission to “Go into all the world, making disciples of all the nations;” to “be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” We spend millions of dollars, give thousands of sermons to millions of agreeable souls, all focused on the mission we’ve been given and the various ways to carry it out. But when the people leave the pews, the churches are quiet, and the dollars reach their destination, a stark reality begins to take hold. No amount of oratorical skill or financial resource will be able to do what it is pledged to do; no program can replace the delicate skill of an individual Christian speaking the truth in love into the darkened mind of the hostile sinner.
The New Testament is replete with instances of Christ and His apostles engaging one on one with individuals, confronting desires, rhetorical defenses and extraneous supernatural forces to address the individual’s true singular need. There were no capital campaigns, there were no "evangelism emphasis weeks," or mass rallies -- just daily personal interaction with Jesus, the living Word, the Word that exposes the needs of men.
Mind you, I am not criticizing modern efforts to address the logistical hurdles that exist in evangelism; rather, I wish to redeem the act of conversation as central to our walk and our witness. Too many Christians, would rather aspire to Peter at Jerusalem than settle for Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. Many pastors would rather engage the intellectual elite like Paul at Mars Hill than mirror Jesus with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, or Zaccheus. What lies beyond the crowds of the unreached is the individual. Each one with their personal story, searching for solace in every location imaginable except the one place where they may truly find rest.
As we encounter these persons along the byways of life we come face to face with their efforts to deaden the pain of a Godless existence and muffle the call of the Shepherd. They soothe their divorces with drink, their abuse with misplaced affection, and their failures with anger and frustration -- frustration with a world claiming to possess answers but whose mantra is to continually question everything.
A glance across every crowded coffee shop or airport waiting area will expose a sea of hurt masked by technology, hidden behind laptop screens and deafened by head phones. These defenses on display are the same ones we use to signal that we are far too busy or preoccupied to engage nearby persons in conversation.
When you do engage in conversation you soon become aware that you are combatting forces both within and without of the individual. These forces are working in concert to fend off the advance of the Gospel. These external forces lie within the domain of the unseen powers and can range from the distraction of sirens and music, to loud neighboring conversation, perhaps even rude and hostile neighbors at the next table. There is a genuine element of spiritual warfare on display. It is truly amazing how at key points in conversations the atmosphere around you can change and the cacophony rises to repel any advance you may be making in the mind of your subject.
When those outside distractions are overcome or if they are non-existent in your setting, there still remains the formidable front of the natural human mind. This line of defense is multifaceted. There are cultural preconceptions, past experiences, personal preferences and non-sensical opinions all working together to change the subject and distract you from your message. Most lethal is the impression they may give that they are open and accepting to all points of view. This is moralistic relativism on display and in practice, they will say ‘you have what works for you and I have what works for me, to each his own.’ The temptation is to accept these statements as passive toward the Gospel, nothing could be further from the truth. As Ronald Nash rightly puts it, “Human beings are never neutral with regard to God. Either we worship God as creator and Lord, or we turn away from God.”
The role of apologetics is not to engage the mind in order to sway it but rather to use worldviews to weave past the mind’s defenses and confront the rebellious soul with the gospel of Truth. Once Christ is proclaimed as Lord within the conversation the person’s mind will engage in every manner of distraction to avoid confronting the uncomfortable truth that they are subject to a sovereign God.
Rarely are we able to maintain the discipline necessary to keep combating every distracting argument with the Gospel. Jesus models this intuition and persistence with expected brilliance. To Nicodemus who focused on earthly fixations, Christ trained his eyes toward Heaven to see the Son of Man descending so that none should perish. To the woman at the well so keen to discuss water and worship, Jesus taught her confront her sin and to savor a new spring of eternal life. To the multitudes obsessed with physical restoration and healing He would address their malady then primarily speak those words He and He alone could say, “See, you are well, go and sin no more.”
When the crowds had drifted away, and the sermons had been preached, and the distractions of this world faded, grace came to a thief hanging next to his Savior. There was no mundane coffee shop, no water cooler, just a brief poignant conversation between two dying men. One guilty facing death, hopelessly lost and the other innocent bearing the reproach of the world, giving His life so that all might live. Our context is different but our message the same: "One day we can see each other in paradise, if only you will confess His Lordship and utter the simple phrase, 'Lord, remember me'."
These stories in the gospels are not merely fodder for crusade sermons, but a blueprint for daily intellectual and spiritual engagement. How do you engage those around you? What form does your apology take? Is your life and ministry marked by grand unfinished designs for evangelistic greatness or small intimate displays of one-on-one faithfulness to the great commission?
“The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, Searching all the innermost parts of his being” -- Proverbs 20:27