A few years after finishing Bible college, I became manager of the denominational bookstore in the city where our denominational offices were centered. This made me a minor, but very visible, figure in one of our church departments.
Though I wasn’t a major player in the denomination, I interacted extensively with the various departments through the bookstore (which also served the college and the seminary), by writing various projects for the departments including Sunday school material, and by participating in other cooperative projects.
During this same period, I was also gaining a higher profile in our denomination’s leading church in the same city. I was very involved in the personal evangelism program, active in the educational program as Children’s Church Director; and a member of the prestigious Education Committee.
The Gift of Evangelism
A professor who taught evangelism at the college invited me to speak to his class and told them enthusiastically that I had the ‘gift’ of evangelism, in reference to Ephesians chapter 4:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
The professor was mistaken. Though I was active and successful, I had no ‘gift of evangelism’; I was driven to personal evangelism by a dreadful burden of responsibility and by guilt.
The burden of responsibility had to do with my belief that all those who weren’t ‘saved’ by accepting Jesus would burn in hell forever. The guilt that drove me to evangelism was the teaching that we were commanded to do it. My church culture was very legalistic, and I participated in ‘soul-winning’ because I was SUPPOSED to.
The evangelism theme song we sang reflects these motivations:Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline! Someone is drifting away; Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline! Someone is sinking today.
It was a desperate situation. Were I not diligent in personal evangelism, people would burn forever and it would be my fault. But no matter how many I witnessed to, or how many souls I won, I would never reach them all. And if all of us, together, were not diligent in reaching them, then untold masses would burn in hell–and we would have failed God.
Do You Know When You Were Saved?
There was a second issue in my quitting personal evangelism. The sort of evangelism we’re discussing assumes a person is ‘saved’ in an instant! Suddenly they do that magic act, or make that magic decision, and become saved and on their way to heaven. Had they died a moment before that magic transition they would have gone to hell.
Besides ‘saved’, other terms for this status are born again, redeemed, regenerated, being in a state of grace, having eternal life, and washed in the blood of the lamb.
In my church culture, if you didn’t know when you were saved then maybe it didn’t happen. And even if you did remember, there was a question of whether you really meant it in your heart; perhaps you had better do it again. Everything hinged on this instant experience, so it was important for sure.
From childhood, we sang the song:
I remember the time; I can take you to the place Where the Lord saved me; by his wonderful grace…
Early in my evangelistic efforts, I encountered a middle-aged couple working in their front yard and engaged them in conversation about Jesus. They enjoyed the discussion and said they both loved Jesus. But I wasn’t sure whether they were really saved because they didn’t use the right vocabulary.
This was before I learned a systematic approach to soul-winning, but I had a helpful question to get to the heart of the matter. I asked them, ‘Do you remember when you were saved?’
They both answered that they were raised in the Methodist Church and never knew a time when they didn’t love Jesus and follow him. As they described it to me, I was stumped. It never occurred to me that accepting Jesus might be a process instead of an instant decision.
Rethinking Assumptions about Salvation
The encounter with the Methodist couple didn’t change my mind, but it caused me to begin rethinking my assumptions. And in time I came to conclude that:
Accepting and following Jesus is a process rather than an instant event
There is no magic act or decision that makes a person a believer
God doesn’t send anyone to eternal torment
However, breaking free of the tremendous burden of responsibility and guilt, and questioning the assumption of instant salvation, were only two aspects of my problem with soul-winning. The third one is perhaps even more significant, and I will talk about it next time. My attitude toward personal evangelism changed dramatically, but it doesn’t mean I no longer share the good news of Jesus—as my entire blog attests!
What were your experiences in personal evangelism?
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Have a great day! ~Tim