Evangelism as a Pastor
James Nash, Minister of St Andrew's Ashton, reveals the ups and downs of doing the work of an evangelist as a pastor.
I can remember a good friend telling me something he had recently learnt from an internship as a management consultant: "you're only a leader if people are following you; otherwise you're just taking a walk!" It's a comic picture but it is as true for the church as in the business world. As a church leader it is very important that you watch your life very closely, not just your doctrine, because where you lead by example, the church you lead will follow. When you dovetail this with the biblical emphasis on the importance of an elder's character, it becomes clear that we must be wholeheartedly living out what we believe and preach. It was the 19th Century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, who said, "the greatest need of my people is my personal holiness." By extension, the greatest need of a church's unbelieving friends and family is the pastor's personal evangelism.
It is often said that the quickest way to humble a proud Christian is to ask them about their prayer life. Surely this is run a close second by asking them about their personal evangelism: "so when was the last time you talked to someone about Jesus?" It's the kind of question that I try and ask myself regularly. How can I make sermon applications to the church family about speaking to their friends about Jesus or bringing them along to evangelistic events at church if I am not doing likewise?
It is tempting to rationalise this situation away in a number of ways: "I'm just not that good a personal evangelist." "I don't have many non-Christian friends and contacts because I'm in Christian work." "My time is so busy with looking after the church family that I don't have opportunities to do things with non-Christians." Would we make the same excuses about reading the Bible or prayer? The temptation to professionalise our evangelism and therefore section it away is huge. Evangelism isn't just something we do, it's to be a way of life for us.
Some people think that because you have a job in Christian work you must have many opportunities to explain the gospel every day. It is true that there is always a chance to say something as you get to know someone and they discover you work for a church. Sometimes such conversations are more rewarding than others. However once friends have got used to the fact that you're a "Vicar" an impasse can often result. There may be the odd apology for having sworn in your presence or an occasional joke about Jesus or the church. It is amazing how quickly people seem to forget and treat you just the same as anyone else, which can be both a good and a bad thing.
I am greatly privileged to have a boss who is a wonderful model to the church family in his desire to strike up evangelistic conversations with unbelievers, whether it's the pollster we pass in town on the way to having a coffee or the guy he regularly goes running with. His example has been a huge challenge to me personally. Yes, he's more of an extrovert than I am. Yes, he's been a Christian for longer than I have. Yes, he's been involved in more University Mission Weeks than I have. But does that mean that the gospel or the Great Commission are any different for him than for me? By no means. I have much to learn and here are a couple of reflections on how I am seeking to address this.
First, I look to try and grab any opportunities to be involved in evangelism with both hands. Paul's statement in Romans 1:16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel" surely presupposes that even the great Apostle was tempted to be ashamed. How does he answer this problem? By reminding himself that the gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." If you want your confidence to grow in the gospel, then get on and use it; get out there and be involved in evangelism. The gospel is treasure of surpassing worth, but isn't to be tucked away in a glass display case. There's no better tonic for a dearth of evangelism than seeing someone converted.
I spend a good deal of my time working with students at our local University; I am always happy to accept their invitations to speak at evangelistic events (even at short notice!). You can usually guarantee that there will be non-Christians at such events and not only do you have the privilege to present the gospel to them, but there's always the chance of some good chats after the talk.
Recently we had a guy who was attending one of our Christianity Explored courses. Unfortunately, he couldn't make a few of the sessions but was keen to catch up on what he'd missed. I jumped at the chance to meet up with him one-to-one to cover the sessions he'd missed and then go on and finish the whole course. Wonderfully he has become a Christian and we have continued to meet, proving the truth of Paul's Roman reminder.
It may be true that as a pastor I have fewer natural non-Christian contacts, since I don't work in a secular workplace. But I have a church family who are very happy to bring theirs to me. It's always great to chat with members of the church about the struggles and joys they have in their evangelism and to show that we're all in this together. I am always happy to meet non-Christian friends and relatives who have an interest in talking about the gospel. What an amazing thing that others will trust me with their gospel-hungry friends.
Second, I deliberately carve out time to spend making non-Christian friends and then working at such friendships to try and re-dress the imbalance of predominantly being around Christians. A great way of doing this has been through having children, which I know isn't an avenue open to all! As our kids have started pre-school and now school, we are brought into contact with a whole classroom full of parents. Simple things such as making sure that you get to school early at both the beginning and end of the day allow friendships to begin and flourish. Through this we have got to know a few couples from the school gate very well, have set up a little dinner party circuit and some have even come to gospel events put on by church. If children aren't an option as an evangelistic tool then join a sports club or take up a hobby that allows you to spend time with non-Christians.
For me the biggest challenge is to seek to build and maintain the same level of friendship with the husbands as my wife does with the wives. Not only are the husbands generally busier, but as blokes we probably don't do the "meeting up for a chat" thing so easily. I've found it good to try and do something with the guys: going for a run, watching a rugby match or inviting them to a men's event from church to get chatting. It's long, slow, hard work; sometimes it feels like tectonic plates are moving faster. However, you occasionally get an amazing opportunity out of the blue as when one couple asked if I might christen their new baby, which gave me a chance to explain what baptism is and therefore to share the gospel with them.
Undergirding all the above is prayer. I pray on my own about evangelism, I pray with my wife about it, I pray with people I read the Bible with about it, we pray as a staff team about it, I pray with my Home Group about it, we pray as a church about it. The more you pray about evangelism, the higher up your list of priorities it will be. Pray for your non-Christian friends; pray for yourself to be bold and true. Pray the prayer of John Chapman: "Lord, please give me an opportunity today to speak to someone about Jesus, and don't be subtle!"
The great thing about being in leadership at the church is that you can have a good deal of input into what evangelistic events the church runs. We are fortunate to have a good number of people who are keen to help with such events, so we do get a wide variety of events. However some that are put on are not entirely what our friends are most likely to want to come along to.
Sometimes this can all feel a bit like you're trying to manufacture friendships. However as time passes, you realise that things aren't so artificial and there's a growing concern for their eternal destiny. One slight frustration is not knowing exactly how long we're going to be living in this area. Friendships can feel a bit like we're up against the clock with no idea when the bell is going to ring. However, as in all things, faithfulness on our part is what is called for and we leave all the results up to God. Who knows what other Christians he will bring into these friends' lives?