One of the fascinating debates that I have the chance to hear from time to time is the debate over evangelism efforts and how we should judge them. As someone who pays more than my fair share to questions of evangelism , I find myself seeking to weigh and balance approaches that tend towards two directions. On the one hand, a great deal of efforts in the contemporary world at evangelism are seeker driven. The unchurched are treated like a customer base that needs to be appealed to, and so the liturgy of many churches, the format of services, and the content of messages is often tailored to that which will draw people to services. This has obvious and lamentable consequences, of course, that people do not find correction and rebuke appealing, and so although our society has much need of such things, our churches have shied away from them because people in the pews do not often really want to be shaken out of their complacency with their spiritual lethargy and lukewarmness. The other course, of course, is to focus on giving a consistently biblical message, come what may, and to realize that it may not always appeal to the great mass of people.
It should be recognized, though, that preaching a biblical message means preaching a balanced biblical message. It is easy for people to rant and storm about the evils of others without reflecting on oneself. There is a certain appeal for people to hear downbeat messages about the outside world without reflecting that even if we may not share the sins of the unwashed heathen around us, we certainly have our own struggles and shortcomings. It is abusive for ministers to rant and storm about the sins of ordinary members in light of their own shortcomings, and yet if we are to become more like God and be purified and refined by Him of our sins and the way that we have been corrupted by the evil within and without, we have to be able to accept rebuke, see the world as it is, and strive for our own redemption and pray for the well-being of others, even if they are not going the same way that we are. Maintaining a biblical perspective means not being afraid to speak out against evil, but with the awareness that sometimes we need to speak to ourselves and not necessarily to others, and sometimes to friends and not only strangers or enemies.
What does the Bible say about the way we approach others with our message. As one might expect, the Bible has two concerns in mind. The first is perhaps best modeled by the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. This parable is sufficiently famous that it needs no introduction, but it is worthwhile to note that the only distinguishing factor is the soil, the hearts of the audience, as the sower and the seed are the same in all circumstances. From this parable it is fairly obvious that the seed was not being tailored to the various types of soil, and that the lack of response or endurance on the part of the seed in various soils was not due to the fact that the seed was somehow defective on the wayside or among thorns or on stony ground but that the ground itself was defective. Even the best seed cannot overcome bad soil; for a seed to bear fruit the soil must be ready to receive the seed and bear fruit. Draw such conclusions as you will.
Yet at the same time those who understand that the seed must be presented in a worthwhile fashion are not themselves without a point. As it is written in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” We see here that Paul sought to serve all and put himself in the place of all of his audience, that he would be able to relate to everyone and encourage them for the sake of the Gospel. To be sure, the Gospel remained consistent, but understanding where people were helped Paul (and others like him) to know exactly on what grounds an appeal could be made that was true to the Gospel and relevant to the concerns of the audience at the same time. This sort of care can and should be taken nowadays, although it requires people to have an attitude of service and to care about and know about the concerns of their audiences as well as about the Gospel message.
What can we take from this? Among the more obvious lessons is that while we are to keep the integrity of the Gospel message of the Kingdom of God in mind, we are also to understand the needs and concerns of our audience and respond to those as the Bible speaks about them. Above all, though, it needs to be kept in mind that the judgment of a godly evangelism effort is not ultimately about numbers. There are plenty of godly efforts from able believers recorded in scripture like Noah and Jeremiah which had fairly miniscule results in terms of the number of people who repented and turned aside from their wicked ways in times of God’s judgment. If we are indeed in a time where God’s judgment is felt by a rebellious and wicked society, we can expect that repentance will follow that judgment. Few societies and cultures are sensitive enough to repent in advance of judgment, and some are particularly stubborn and stiff-necked even in the face of judgment for their sins and faults. To be sure, that is not only a problem for others, but sometimes for ourselves as well.
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