For lots of people, Halloween is a scary day with all those ghosts and goblins and twelve-foot werewolves with flashing red eyes, but Halloween is nothing. If you want to know true terror, try evangelism. Let’s admit it: for lots of church people, what scares them to death is evangelism. Nick Pollard, in his spectacular book, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult: How to Interest People Who Aren’t Interested (InterVarsity Press, 1997), starts off the first chapter with a conversation he had with a good friend before a particular evangelistic event. A good friend came up to him and said, “There is one thing you’ll never suffer from as an evangelist.” Pollard innocently asked, “What’s that?” He replied: “Constipation!” And Pollard agreed, “Too right! Nerves will always see to that!” Why don’t we all run out and do evangelism willy-nilly every day? Answer: Because evangelism is scary! So, what do we do? We pray.
And what do we pray? Pollard turns to Paul’s words in Colossians 4:2-6 for some wise advice. The text reads:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Note that the passage falls into two parts. The first section is all about prayer (it starts, “devote yourselves to prayer,”) and the second half focuses on evangelism (it starts, “Be wise in the way you act,”). Pollard notes the connection and writes:
“Prayer is talking to God about people, and evangelism is talking to people about God. We cannot do one without the other.”
Already I am behind the eight-ball. Not only am I not a good evangelist, but I am definitely not great at praying for people with the goal of evangelism. But don’t be alarmed. We haven’t even begun working our way through this prayer. I’ll be way, way behind that eight-ball by the time we reach the end!
Pollard is going to break this prayer down into six components. Each component will have a challenging question. By the time we’ve identified all six components, we will have uncovered six keys to praying for the lost.
Component 1: We need to pray that “God would open a door for our message.” Now, let’s be honest. Our problem with praying this prayer is not that God may not answer it, but that he might! And what if he does? Imagine God giving us opportunities galore to share our faith with the people around us! For most of us, that would be terribly scary. And in my experience, the prayers you pray out of ought, that you really don’t want to happen, those are the prayers God always answers. If we want to truly take our responsibility seriously and share the good news with those around us, then this is our starting point. We need to pray God would give us opportunities to share.
Component 2: Paul explains why we should pray that God would give us opportunities. He says (vs. 3): “so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.” See, it is one thing to be given an opportunity, but it is another to see it and to act on it. I have had numerous opportunities where I could have easily turned the conversation towards spiritual things, but I chose (for one reason or another) not to pursue it. Paul says we need to pray that we would see the open door and step through it. And remember, if you pray it, most of the time, they will come (opportunities, that is).
Component 3: Paul prays (vs. 4), “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” See, it is one thing to ask for opportunities; it is another thing to take hold of that opportunity, but it is another thing altogether to pray that when we step through that door, we do a good job. That our “presentation” is clear and compelling. And while it is scary to take hold of an opportunity, there is nothing worse than realizing that, although you courageously stepped forward, you only proceeded to make a complete mess out of things. Trust me, I’ve been there. You explain too much. You get sidetracked. You forget what you were going to say. You can’t find the verse you want to share. Yep, I’ve done all those things. That’s why we need to pray that we will proclaim the gospel clearly (and concisely!).
Okay, we are at intermission. Before moving from prayer to action (components 4, 5 and 6), Paul wants to take a breath. See, we are in possession of a really great prayer here. But we can pray until we are blue in the face if we are . . . (and I’m going to use a deeply theological term here) jerks. Paul says, pray and pray hard, but when it comes to outreach, be gracious, be wise and be engaging.
Component 4: Paul’s first instruction to us is (vs. 5), “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.” Now, biblical wisdom is never simply an intellectual pursuit. Biblical wisdom is about living well. That means we need to be wise in how we present God’s truth (as opposed to ramming it down people’s throats). It means we need to be wise in how we interact with them emotionally (emotional intelligence). It means we need to be sensitive to their needs. It means we need to be gracious and kind. And it means we need to respect them, which means, in particular, we need to respect their wacky views, their irrelevant questions, their lack of spiritual coherence and their mistaken beliefs. It also means we need to work. We not only need to understand our faith better, but we need to understand effective and winsome ways of communicating it; and almost as importantly, we need to understand their beliefs so that we can address them graciously (more on this next week). Pollard writes:
“When I first started in evangelism, I found that just ten minutes talking with a non-Christian about Jesus meant that I then had to spend ten hours studying, thinking and picking the brains of wiser Christians. Evangelism is not easy, particularly in today’s culture, and if we are serious about reaching people with the gospel, we must be serious about wrestling with difficult, complex issues.”
See, just a moment ago, you were feeling far less scared about the prospect of sharing your faith. Now, you are overwhelmed and terrified again. So, just erase that last paragraph and we will both agree it never happened.
Component 5: Not only are we to be wise, but we are to (vs. 5), “make the most of every opportunity.” Pollard makes a great distinction here, and you are going to like it. Paul says make the most of every opportunity. He does not say, “make the opportunity.” When the opportunity arises, make the most of it; but don’t feel like you have to force the conversation and twist and turn it so that you can share the gospel. Again, the principle here is: don’t be a jerk. The Spirit is at work, and our job is to follow his lead. Our job is not to go before the Holy Spirit and insist that he bless our efforts at usurping his role. Instead, we seek to make the most of every opportunity that the Spirit provides. Pollard writes (and he often says things like this that make his book a cut above the rest):
“When I realized that making the most of the opportunity means helping people in the best way possible, I began to see that I should leave them thinking, ‘That was interesting. I want to find out more. I must talk to him about this again.’ Nowadays, when I have an opportunity to talk to people, I try to leave them hungry to read the Bible, to come to a particular meeting, to talk to someone else–anything to find out more about Jesus. We are to make the most of every opportunity, but in most cases that will mean leaving people hungry for more.”
Component 6: And last, Paul says (vs. 6), “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Evangelism would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to communicate the message in a way that is consistent with the message. Here’s the point: A message of grace needs to be communicated in a gracious way. Pollard says it this way (another great quote and insight):
“Evangelism isn’t just about saying certain things. It’s about being a certain person and living in a certain way. The heart of the gospel is love, and love must be at the center of our hearts as we seek to communicate this gospel to others. If we tell people of God’s love without at the same time demonstrating that love, our words are empty and hypocritical.”
Nick Pollard has given us six powerful components to make evangelism slightly less difficult. It still is hard; but with these tools, it is far less scary. Maybe if we keep at this, we can move evangelism from being identified with Halloween to a far better celebration day, something like “National Hairball Awareness Day” (April 28) or “National Upsy-Daisy Day” (June 8) or “National Rat Catcher’s Day” (July 22)–you know–something that is not so scary, but maybe feels a little weird.