by Larry Poland
We have an impressive array of tools for evangelism; all kinds of technology that we didn’t have 25 years ago. But I wonder if, in the midst of all this, we might be missing the major dynamics for success in the Great Commission.
Vince Lombardi made a name for himself as a football coach by emphasizing the basics. His Green Bay Packers seldom engaged in any razzle-dazzle. Lombardi simply believed that the team that hits the hardest, tackles the strongest, runs the fastest, and explodes at the line is going to win. The Packers’ winning record proved Lombardi’s conviction in a way that stunned the world.
An old German proverb says, "The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing." Success means focusing energy on major concerns while sidetracking minor ones. Do you suppose we might have lost the opportunity for effective world evangelism because we have gotten involved in what is not the main thing?
We have an impressive array of tools for evangelism; all kinds of technology that we didn’t have 25 years ago. We have computers, management by objectives, sophisticated research, and data processing. We probe into the dynamics of church growth, theological education by extension, cross-cultural penetration, and contextualization. But I wonder if, in the midst of all this, we might be missing the major dynamics for success in the Great Commission.
Ephesians 6 reminds us that we are not involved in management warfare or technological warfare. We are, instead, engaged in spiritual warfare. And the weapons that we need for this kind of battle are first and foremost spiritual. What kinds of weapons do we need for effective world evangelism?
The first weapon we need is prayer. Prayer is the nuclear warhead of the Great Commission. I must confess that the first thing that may suffer in a mission thrust is one’s prayer life, but we should all understand the embarrassment that may result from lack of prayer.
In Mark 9 Jesus descended from the Mount of Transfiguration only to discover an argument raging between his followers and critics. The squabble arose because nine of his disciples were found incapable of casting out demons from a young boy. A father had brought his boy to Christ’s followers because he had heard of the success they had dealing with problems, including demon possession.
I imagine that somewhat routinely they gathered together and said, "Let’s pray." Nothing happened to the boy. The critics began to murmur. Jesus’ disciples got a little defensive then, I suppose, and by the time Jesus entered a real battle of verbiage was going on.
Jesus ignored the squabble and asked the father some questions about faith. Then he cured the boy. When Jesus’ followers asked later why they couldn’t cast out the demons, they were given one reason. They had prayed, but not with the intensity, commitment, and faith necessary to perform a supernatural task.
If the embarrassing alternative to prayer is impotency, then the wonderful effect of prayer is potency. Acts 12 records the dramatic effects of appropriate prayer. The apostle Peter was in jail. But people were praying. Although he was in chains, Peter sensed some dramatic things were beginning to happen. His chains fell off. He was ushered through gates past guards and into the street. He thought he was dreaming, yet when he got to the street he proceeded to go to the place where people were praying for him.
Their prayers were answered. Apparently theirs were the kind of prayers that the followers of Jesus didn’t engage in prior to attempting to cast out demons.
Recently I talked to some members of the Youth With a Missions group. They told me about a technique they had used with amazing success. They said that before they went door-to-door witnessing they would spend a day or more prior to that in a walk through the area, praying all along the route. The group can document a significant difference in what God does on their days of evangelism if they precede them with days of prayer.
A number of years ago I was invited to speak to a group of young people at a retreat in Florida. It was a strange experience-I was trying to communicate but felt somehow like I was being hindered. I seemed to have a mental block at times, and my thoughts were disjointed. At one point I was about to issue a challenge to these young people to commit their lives to Christ, when somebody had a coughing fit. That no sooner ended when someone knocked a pop bottle over on the concrete floor.
After this session a young lady came up to me and said, "It’s interesting that you should talk about the occult. On the way up here a girl told our fortunes. She was terrific. Her name is Lori. She told us things about ourselves no one else could ever have known."
The next morning I called my staff together for a time of prayer. I said, "I don’t know what’s happening, but I don’t seem to be able to communicate. Since I am speaking out against the occult, maybe there are spiritual enemies working against me. I would like to request some special prayers."
We prayed that God would restrain all evil and give free flow to my message that morning, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had such freedom speaking as I had that morning. God was doing something very special. About three-fourths of the young people committed themselves to Christ.
It was after the evening services that someone said, "Lori wants to speak with you." She was a beautiful, dark-eyed, dark-haired young lady. I asked her if she knew Christ personally. She said no. I asked if she wanted to, and she said yes. I asked her to repeat my words after me.
"Dear Lord Jesus," I began. Lori was silent. I started again. She said nothing. I looked up and saw her fists were clenched. She could not get words out.
Suddenly I said, "In the name of Jesus, I command you to let this young girl go free." I’ve never said those words before, but at that time they seemed absolutely necessary.
This time when I prayed Lori said after me, "Dear Lord Jesus," and committed her life to Him.
Do any of us realize the significance of prayer upon our ministry?
The second dynamic for success in the Great Commission is witnessing. I am a bit concerned about the weakness of some of our gospel messages. They seem to offer so much less than what Jesus said in his message of good news. Good news is what liberates us from eternal death and hell, but it is so much more than that.
Good news is complete rectification of all the world’s disorders. Jesus is building a perfect kingdom in which there will be no special injustice, no exploitation of the poor, no accidents, no sorrow, and no suffering. Witnessing, I believe, must communicate the entire content of good news.
Then, of course, we must witness. A direct numerical relationship exists between witnessing and converts. Paul asked, "How are they going to hear, unless someone tells them?" How strange that in our organization what slips is consistent, open, one-on-one gospel presentation. Then we wonder why we don’t see dramatic church growth. Without sowing there is no reaping.
The most significant management problem we have in missions today is keeping people focused on sharing Christ in everyday, consistent, and loving presentations of the gospel with direct invitations to respond. If you don’t ask people to respond to witnessing, you might never see results. In sales jargon this is called generating prospects without closing sales.
I look back at the first 18 years of my Christian experience as a time of unproductive witness. I can name only five people who came to know Christ through me. Most of this time I was living in a godly home, attending Bible college or seminary, and worshipping in a Christ-centered church. Yet the problem with my witness was that it was really no witness at all. I liked to engage in theological arguments. I soon discovered people are neither debated into the kingdom nor argued into eternal life. A lovingly presented gospel with an opportunity to respond would achieve far more.
Today I am very concerned about statistics in missions. I recently read that only 29 percent of missionaries are engaged in evangelism or church planting. I am concerned that such a small percentage of our entire missions force is geared toward what would do the most to advance world evangelism. But I am even more concerned about that 29 percent who may, even in witnessing, be doing less than they ought to be doing.
In some 70 countries I have discovered it is atypical to find a missionary who so consistently and clearly presents the gospel that there is even a trickle of people coming to Christ. If we lack boldness and impact in missions today, I wonder if it’s because we suffer first from lack of prayer, and secondly from lack of sowing. How can we expect a harvest without sowing the seed?
Another important dynamic for success in evangelism is discipling. Discipling is the reproductive . complement of evangelism. Evangelism, if we’re not careful, may quickly slip into an "addition" strategy. Day after day we go out to proclaim the good news, but unless we train the people who respond to Christ to introduce others to him, we are just adding bodies to the fold.
We know that population growth is no addition strategy. Population growth doesn’t just add people to the world, but multiplies them by geometric progression; two parents can generate many times more than themselves.
I believe that the strength of the Great Commission is that its focus is on discipling, which involves immersion into the body of Christ and instruction to the point where disciples can then reproduce themselves. If we lack significant results in our missions thrust, maybe it’s because we have committed ourselves to addition instead of multiplication strategies.
Multiplication strategy says if we start with only two Christians and these two introduce two others to Christ and disciple them, then these two new Christians by reaching out to others will multiply themselves until eventually millions are actively involved in the discipling process. The heart of the Great Commission is discipling.
Jesus himself is its model. He chose not to speak to 50,000 people every day, but instead chose to disciple 12. Robert Coleman’s book on evangelism says that an evangelist like Billy Graham could speak to billions, yet disciple only a handful of people. A housewife, too, can have a handful of disciples. Every Christian with a handful of disciples who will introduce others to Christ sets in effect a geometric progression without which Christianity would have little effect on the world.
The next vital ingredient for effective evangelism is confrontation. I believe confrontation must be offensive, rather than defensive strategy for God’s kingdom. What this means is moving from a protective stance for the truth to an aggressive, initiative, and dramatic attack on the enemy.
One significant Bible statement says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. This is not a defensive statement at all. It is only as we boldly march to the gates of hell that they will not hold up against us. Yet somehow we’ve missed this point in our mission strategies.
The book of Acts records no prayers for a defensive posture. What Christians prayed for instead, was boldness involving high-risk strategies. Imagine Paul, a converted Jewish rabbi, taking his witness to synagogues! No other place could have guaranteed him more opposition. Yet, on the positive side, no other place could have yielded more converts, for these were people who knew Paul well and could see the most change in his life.
A few years ago I went on a trip to the Middle East. One thing I enjoy doing on these trips is identifying mission strategies, projecting them 20 years ahead, and asking if they would fulfill the Great Commission in 20 years. On this particular trip I began to ask questions of the Christian leaders I met. "Why are people so timid in their witness on the streets of the Middle East?"
I received some condescending looks for my seeming ignorance, then some explanations. "People who witness in the Middle East get thrown in jail or kicked out of the country. Witnessing is against the law."
I asked if anyone was witnessing anyway-despite the risk. One person said yes. I asked what happened. "Well," he said, "they come ashore and witness and then they get kicked out of the country. They bring in more people and they get kicked out too."
I asked if there was anything defective about this strategy. What was better-staying in silence in the country, or getting kicked out for speaking about Christ? I think sometimes in our efforts to protect the gains we have made, we have missed the command to take a bold initiative against the enemy. Spirit-filled confrontation is offensive, not defensive "witnessing.
Evangelism today needs the power of love. Love is a magnet that draws the lost to Christ. Some time ago I met with Christian leaders to talk about strategies for evangelism in the Middle East. During that conference we discovered some startling reasons for mission failure. Do you know why they feel Christianity has failed to penetrate the Middle East? According to these Christian leaders, it’s because we don’t love Muslims.
There is such a matrix of hate and rivalry in the Middle East, that it is tough for Arabs to get excited about Jews accepting Christ. It’s hard for converted Muslims to empathize with other Muslims, and it’s almost impossible for Greeks, Cypriots, Lebanese, and Syrians to care about each other. Is it any wonder that the gospel has not penetrated the Middle East?
People are loved into the kingdom. It’s the absence of love that makes us impotent and weak. Jesus made a significant prediction in Matthew 24. Before the good news of the kingdom would be preached to the whole world, he said, "The love of most will grow cold." It’s this increasing coldness and absence of love and commitment that mark our age. Yet Christ loves us and wants us to love others.
As a young college president I struggled with public relations problems. After about five years I discovered it didn’t make much difference what I did. In our school there were people who would condemn me no matter how well I solved problems, and there were people who were loving and affirmative no matter what I did. Even when I blew it or did a dumb thing they would say, "It’s O.K. We love you. We forgive you. We are praying for you. Hang in there."
Did it ever occur to you what a tremendous impact we could have on the lives of others if we would just love them enough to set aside petty differences we might have with them? Don’t you believe that would be the kind of love people would travel miles to receive?
On a visit to a meeting of religious broadcasters in Washington, as I passed by the array of technology in the hall, someone tapped on my shoulder. The man looked somewhat familiar. He said his name was Eddie, and that while he was in seminary and I in high school, we had dated sisters. He married the older sister but I stopped dating the younger one.
I asked Eddie how his wife was. He said Suzanne had died of cancer nine months ago. "It was difficult," he said. "I watched her waste away. She was in constant agony. They gave her triple doses of codeine, cocaine, and morphine, but that still didn’t take away the pain."
"I know she’s with the Lord," he added, "but frankly, I can’t get used to being single. I go home at night and there’s nobody there to greet me. If I’m 20 minutes late, my 16-year-old son calls me and asks, ‘Dad, are you coming home?’ "
I felt tears in my eyes as Eddie began to weep. Then right there, in the midst of all that technology, the two of us embraced. We reached out in love.
I’d trade that for technology any day. I walked out of that exhibit hall with immeasurable joy. Two brothers in Christ couldn’t possibly bicker about doctrine while they were embracing each other in sympathy. Brothers couldn’t fight if they were weeping together and sharing each others’ burdens. The power of this kind of love could transcend any difference: national, regional, ethnic, or doctrinal.
The sixth dynamic for mission strategy is Spirit-filling. In Luke 24 Jesus says the good news of reptentance will be spread to the whole world beginning from Jerusalem. Then he adds, "You are my witnesses to these things and I am going to send you what my Father has promised. But stay in this city until you are clothed with power from on high."
I believe we have disobeyed this command. I really believe we send people into the front lines of evangelism who are not clothed with the power of God’s Spirit. I believe we have also kept people at the front lines who have not remained clothed in that power. Then we wonder why people come home from the mission field hurt, crushed, and defeated, or stay in the field with increasing bitterness and resentment. We have not obeyed the command to "stay in the city until we are clothed in God’s power."
Jesus didn’t want his disciples to engage in abortive missions. He didn’t want people with vision to witness to the world without the power to sustain it. Without the Holy Spirit we run naked among hostile enemies.
No one ever taught me how to be filled with the Holy Spirit; no one in the church, Christian college, or even seminary. I remember memorizing pages of notes on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I could quote passages on the deity of the Spirit, his personality, marks of baptism, and works-but I couldn’t tell you how to be filled with him.
I believe this must be taught. It must also be walked. We must demonstrate a consistent walk in the Spirit, appropriating all the power, life, and joy of God in us.
We send people with mission strategies and technology all over the world. They’re in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, but they are not filled with the Spirit. They are not motivated by Jesus within, who makes their words and witness supernaturally effective.
The final dynamic for effective evangelization is cleansing. No significant work of God has ever been done by unclean people. On one occasion I began complaining because five weeks of travel and relationship problems wouldn’t go away. I was feeling sorry for myself. Then I read Hebrews 12: "In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
I gulped. I needed cleansing-of my wrong attitude and self-pity. I had not yet resisted to the point of blood. I hadn’t even come close. Oh, Lord, cleanse me!
In the moment of cleansing the power of Christ filled me. I could rejoice with the songwriter: "Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green; something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen."
There has never been an effective mission thrust, I’m convinced, that took place without cleansing. Evan Roberts who was used by God in the great Welsh revival of 1904, began his movement with prayer. He believed after prayer there were four steps necessary for revival.
First, one had to confess any known sin to God and right any wrong done to man. Second, one must remove any doubtful habit from one’s life. Third, one must promptly obey the Spirit. And fourth, one must publicly confess one’s faith in Christ. Cleansing is imperative for any mission effort to succeed.
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