Some Sobering Stories
In Singapore, a young woman happily signed up to The Four Spiritual Laws and prayed a prayer “to receive Jesus.” This delighted the foreigner who had met her on the street. The young woman then went home and added an offering to Jesus to her already well-populated god-shelf.
In London, an evangelical church elder insisted that he was glad to be a Christian; however, he said he could not possibly believe in the resurrection or miraculous conception of Christ, nor in the miracles recorded in the New Testament.
An African told me how good it had felt to smash a machete through the skull of a tribal rival, why he had put spirit strings on his baby son and, all in the same breath, how happy he was “to belong to Jesus” since his own childhood.
In China, where the Church has grown enormously in many areas in recent years, there is also an explosion of wild deviation from historic Christian faith, with cults and sects abounding. Many house churches do not have a single Bible among their members, and leaders are frequently eager but ignorant of the scriptures.
Facing the Facts
All these and a thousand more similarly depressing and disturbing stories can be replicated all around the world. On the one hand, the twentieth century saw unprecedented geographical expansion of the Church as previously unevangelised people groups began to respond to the gospel. On the other hand, it is arguable that never has the Church been so shallow and so vulnerable in country after country—and that evangelicals are as compromised as any other stream of the global Church.
In fact, some would argue that in our haste (which we could regard as commendable) to carry the gospel far and wide, in our urgency to “reach” as many people as possible, evangelicals have been the most guilty of all in tragic gospel reductionism. In the most terrible irony, evangelicals—our very name means “gospel people”—have too often betrayed the Lord by adopting ministry patterns that are deeply flawed and fail to produce authentic, truly transformed, life-long disciples. This has especially been a problem in the last forty years, when the evangelical world has been awash with confident strategies by means of which the whole world could be reached within a given time span, with too much faith placed in human endeavour and too little humble recognition that only the Spirit of God can bring life out of death and we do not know where and when he will choose to blow.
Perhaps this sounds rather judgemental and miserable; however, I believe it to be true of all too much of the world Church, especially where it has grown rapidly, and especially where cultures are not challenged. We need to face the fact that numerical expansion is not the same as deep-level conversion and life-long growth in discipleship.
Being an authentic disciple, essential if we are also to become authentic disciple-makers, is rooted in a deep relationship with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which governs every part of our lives. This is far more profound than assenting to a handful of propositions, and is entirely different from the self-centred therapeutic approach which too often passes for evangelism. (“Do you want peace and joy/healing/prosperity? Then just ask Jesus into your life!”)
By contrast, the Lord calls us first of all to repentance, that deep and ongoing recognition that he is the boss, that we are by nature totally bent in the wrong direction, that he wants to change our minds and hearts and values and that he alone can deliver us from judgement and death. He does not hold out to us a cosmic aspirin to make us feel better, but commands us to take up the cross day by day: a symbol of shame and suffering; a painful putting to death of old ways of thinking, behaving and being. We cannot bypass the “being identified with him in his death” to get to the triumph of “being identified with him in his resurrection.” Indeed, until glory, the two must run side by side, day after day. We are pilgrims, going on a life-long journey; we know our ultimate destination, but there may be many hard days of travelling along the way.
If our evangelism does not make explicit the cost as well as the privilege of being disciples, we have distorted the gospel and encouraged people to make professions of faith which will not stand up against the realities of truly following Jesus in obedient love. The evangel is good news. However, it is only good news if it is rooted in truth which includes the fact that conversion is a vital first step that in turn is to usher in a lifetime of love and learning, obedience and faith. The state of much of the world Church suggests that we have too often been seduced by easy-believism and cheap grace. That is as true of London and Los Angeles as it is of Lagos or Beijing or Bangkok.
What Then Should We Do Now?
All is not hopeless, though. There are seven things, we as evangelicals can do.
- Acknowledge the reality of the problem. We all like success stories; however, as Christians we need to be more eager for truth stories. There are wonderful things to praise God for, but that does not change the fact that in many respects we have created some disasters in the name of evangelism. We have much to repent of.
- Abandon our love-affair with counting numbers, adopting slogans and targets and relying on strategies that may be appropriate for the world of multinational corporations but which marginalise God. It is not that we should have no plans or strategies, but it does mean that they will always be secondary to the recognition that the growth of the true Church is a profoundly Spirit-birthed matter, and we cannot organise that.
- Have far greater integrity in our evangelism, and while holding out the love and grace of God (which is beyond words wonderful!) we must also insist (and model) that following the Lord Jesus involves a lifetime of commitment, and being willing to give ourselves to costly obedience. Wherever we are in the world—in the post-Christian West or in the midst of another world faith as in all of Asia—being a disciple of Jesus Christ takes us into a collision course with much of our culture, and requires us progressively to put off the old life and put on new values, new understandings of what constitutes truth, new priorities, a new everything.
- Whether we are involved in pioneer evangelism among an unreached people group, or sharing the gospel with our next-door neighbours, we need to give far more attention to “what happens next.” It is irresponsible to encourage people to “follow Jesus” unless there is provision to follow through with ongoing discipling. That will include engaging in long-term mentoring, enabling people to become students of God’s Word (orally if they are illiterate), embedding them in healthy Christian communities and helping them learn how to change and be changed in line with the will of God in every dimension of their lives.
- Accept that in most cases authentic evangelism involves long-term commitment. We all know of occasions where in the sovereign leading of God we have met complete strangers, been able to share the gospel with them and perhaps have even seen them profess faith. However, the norm is different. Discipling involves committed relationships, and relationships take time to mature meaningfully. If the Lord Jesus himself needed to spend three intensive years discipling a small group of men, living with them, sharing every part of daily life with them, then we surely need to examine whether we have sacrificed depth to quantity. Yes, the Lord taught the crowds as well, but he invested very heavily in the twelve apostles.
- Place far more emphasis on the whole word of God instead of on a few selected verses. We all need the whole word, not just bits of it. And we need to know how to study it and to teach it so that it enmeshes prophetically with the issues of everyday life, both personally and for society as a whole. It may be a salutary exercise to examine whether we spend more time and effort in reading fiction and watching TV than we do in serious Bible study. If we do, we should not be surprised if they shape us more than scripture does. There is no deep-level conversion without constant exposure to the mind and heart of God.
- Be deeply jealous for the glory of God. The Lord’s people should reflect his character, his truth, his deeds. For that, we need to pass beyond evangelism, and recapture the breadth and depth, the privilege and the urgency, of making disciples. After all, that is what the Lord asked of us.