Part 1 of the revised text of a presentation for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in 2008.
In the spring of 2004 I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Bristol, England. Bristol is an interesting city. It’s the place from which John Cabot set sail in 1497. It also has a long history of harbouring the Christian faith in various forms. The main chapel of the famous Methodist John Wesley is found there. There is a well-known and very large church, St. Mary Redclyffe, which dates back to the thirteenth century. And you’d have to see it to believe it, but there are still churches on just about every corner in the downtown core. Most of them stand empty or have been converted into coffee shops, museums, art galleries and apartments. Today it is a typical city in the U.K. – very few people still go to church and even fewer are Bible-believing Christians in any sense. So far as I know (and I looked), there were no confessionally Reformed churches in Bristol. We often deplore the so-called secularization of the Netherlands where many of us have our roots, but the situation is no better and maybe even worse in the U.K.
As I was in Bristol that weekend, I was exploring the downtown area when I saw something I’d never seen before: a street preacher. There was this articulate black British man preaching the gospel right on the street. I stopped and listened for a while and it sure sounded like the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, very few people around were stopping to listen. There was a small group of three or four people, but I think those were his friends, probably waiting their turn. I thought about this afterwards: was this an effective way to reach out with the gospel to the people of Bristol, people who appear mostly to be estranged from Christ?
I thought about this more recently when I became familiar with the work of an evangelist by the name of Ray Comfort. Comfort was born in New Zealand, but is a pastor in the United States. Some time ago I watched a video of Comfort doing street evangelism somewhere in the US. I think it’s fair to characterize Comfort’s approach as aggressive and in-your-face. He believes that he needs to be. He believes that he has to confront unbelievers with the demands of God’s law, their inability to keep it and their need for a Saviour in Jesus Christ. Is this what we need to do as well?
I would not say that it’s sinful or necessarily wrong or evil, but I am going to suggest that this may not be the wisest or most appropriate way to approach your neighbours. Before I explain why that is, let me briefly outline where I’m coming from.
While I was in university in Edmonton, I was part of an outreach effort that we called the Areopagus Project. Once a week we set up a table in a high traffic area on campus. We had two people sitting at the table and we had free Bibles available, plus a variety of tracts. Through the contacts at the table, we also invited people to a campus Bible Study conducted by ourselves and some friends from the local Free Church of Scotland. Upon moving to Hamilton for seminary studies, I was involved with a sort of pre-cursor work to what we now call Streetlight Ministries. Rev. Ted VanRaalte and myself (along with our wives) would regularly do an evangelistic Bible Study at a drug and alcohol rehab facility in downtown Hamilton. Then, of course, in 1999 I became involved with the mission work of the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church and in 2000 I was called to become their missionary in Fort Babine. In my work as a pastor in established churches, I’ve also from time to time had the opportunity to share the hope we have. So, over the last 15 years or so I’ve been blessed to be able to share the gospel with many people numerous times and in various settings.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned it’s that there is no one formula to follow in witnessing to our neighbours about the gospel. I can’t come and say here’s what you need to do, step 1, step 2, and so on. Witnessing and evangelism is not like that in the Bible and it doesn’t work like that in life today. People are different and unpredictable. Situations are different and unpredictable. The most important character trait we need to develop when we desire to reach out and witness to our neighbours is flexibility. People are not the same – those who witness are all different and those who receive the witness are all different.
What I’d like to do is survey the ways in which people on the receiving end are different and how we might witness to them more effectively in recognition of their differences. Specifically, I want to briefly discuss how people differ in where they are spiritually and where they are in relation to us. In this, I’m briefly summarizing part of a book on evangelism that I’ve found helpful, Tell the Truth, by Will Metzger.
So, first of all, let’s survey some of the ways in which people differ in their spiritual state and what their needs are in light of what God says in Scripture.
The Ignorant and Indifferent
Many people in broader Canadian society fall under this category. These are those who normally simply don’t care about spiritual things. They may be moral people and they may go to church on special occasions, they may even describe themselves as Christians when surveys are done, but in general, they just drift through life.
These folks need to be challenged and surprised to see their need for a Saviour. They need to be warned and shown the high demands of God’s law (“Be perfect!”) so that they will be driven to the cross of Christ. If they remain indifferent and uninterested, we, like Jesus with the rich young ruler in Luke 18, just let them go their way. Perhaps God will still work with them further in the future. Perhaps not. But even just letting them go, we don’t stop loving them or praying for them.
When I was a missionary in Fort Babine, there were a number of people in the community who warmly welcomed our presence. There was one family in particular that thought it was especially good we were there. They would say things like, “It’s good that you’re here, those other people in the community sure need you to straighten them out.” They themselves were already straightened out, so they had no interest in the gospel. These are the self-righteous and they will be found everywhere.
These people need to be shown that their pride is idolatry and extremely offensive to God. We need to hold up the mirror of God’s Word to them so that they will see the ugliness of their pride and run to Christ. We need to be pray they will be convicted of their own sin and go to the cross for forgiveness and reconciliation.
These people may think they are Christians, but the reality is something different. In our society we can especially think of people who are Jehovah’s Witnesses or devout Roman Catholics. If they were surveyed, they too might answer that they are Christians. But meanwhile, if they are trusting in anything else other than Christ alone, they are in a world of eternal trouble. Of course, there may be the odd Roman Catholic who is truly trusting in Christ alone but doesn’t leave Rome for one reason or another. Yet those are rare.
These folks need to hear the biblical gospel that it is in Christ alone that we have our salvation and well-being. We have to persistently share with them the good news that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone. The solas of the Reformation will be our repeated refrain with them.