Why I Quit the Soul-saving Business

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.

Throw out the life-line

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?

Photo Credit: Bev Goodwin via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please subscribe in the column to the right so you don’t miss future posts.
Have a great day! ~Tim
This entry was posted in hell, legalism, sinners, witnessing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Why I Quit the Soul-saving Business

  1. michaeleeast says:

    I love the way you tell us your story.
    Absolute honesty about ourselves is characteristic of strong faith.
    It would seem that the Father appreciates such honesty.
    Which is a characteristic of relationship with Him.


  2. Pingback: How I Became a Successful Personal Evangelist and Why I Quit | Jesus Without Baggage

  3. Lynn says:

    Although I said I wasn’t going to read this until morning, I couldn’t help myself. 🙂 Another good post, Tim. You’re teaching me so much about things I did not understand. I hadn’t realized the meaning behind certain phrases and words to certain groups. Most of those phrases are never used, as far as I can recall, in the faith I grew up in. Now I’m recalling the times I’ve been approached by the door-to-door folks.There was even an incident in a Walmart parking lot down south. I was with the man I date when another man started a chat with me about the weather. As soon as I smiled, the man went into a conversion speech and shoved papers to me. The man also blew through social custom by completely ignoring the man I was with. I’d not grown up with such approaches. My gentleman didn’t take kindly and sent the man off. Even then, the man was reluctant to leave me be. The singlemindedness was disturbing. I’m getting a better idea of what was going on now by reading your posts.


    • Lynn, you do seem to have encountered a personal evangelist driven by the pressing need to lead you to the Lord and save you from hell. Many years ago, that evangelist could have been me.


  4. Lynn says:

    Tim, I ask this sincerely because I don’t know: When a person says they’re an evangelical or they belong to an evangelical church, does that mean they each practice this sort of personal evangelist behavior?


    • Not necessarily, Lynn. While this personal evangelism approach is not found much outside fundamentalist or evangelical groups, not all evangelicals use it. It is not an essential aspect of evangelicalism.


  5. Lynn says:

    Thank you. Thank you also for allowing me to ask questions and share comments without fear. Learning from your writing and those who comment here widens my view.


    • You are certainly welcome. This site is meant to be a safe place where people can question, comment, and interact. I am pleased that you can see that!

      I am also happy that I have such an excellent group of regular commenters who share the same commitment to positive and productive interaction.


  6. Tim, another great post here. Since you asked the question at the end about our experiences of personal evangelism I will share a bit. I grew up Catholic, and really more than anything was always more spiritual than religious. After college I got involved in a Baptist mega-church for the young couples groups that some of our friends were going to (and because it wasn’t painfully boring like Catholic church). Shortly after that, I started learning about the evangelical way of life, including the idea of “getting saved” and alter calls, etc.. I moved around to a few different evangelical type churches over the 10 years that followed, but all of them took this bit seriously, because as you say, to them it was between bliss or hell for eternity. I quickly became very turned off from the idea and never got into it myself. After about a decade of being a bit of a square peg in the evangelical church (mainly United Methodist) I realized that most people simply don’t ever ask why they believe what they believe, and instead simply listen to what the pastors on stage are saying, so I started my own blog to help snap people out of that way of being and encourage folks to think for themselves. These days I evangelize all the time, but the message is to focus much more on love than on survival, image, and dogmatic indoctrination.


    • Eric, I guess our early backgrounds are quite different. You began in Catholicism and I in fundamentalism, but we both became involved in conservative evangelicalism before turning to Jesus’ principle of love instead of the doctrines of fear and legalism.

      I hope more and more believers continue to join us and find rest and peace!


  7. sheila0405 says:

    Wow, talk about a blast from the past; “Throw Out the Lifeline”! Jesus never told us to be personal evangelists–he said to “go and make disciples”. That is a far cry from trying to manipulate a person into the “sinner’s prayer”. Discipleship is about personal relationships with friends and family, taking the time to listen to others, and treat them the way Jesus told us to. When we model the love of Jesus and apply ourselves to reaching out to others with that love, that’s when people start to think about Jesus for themselves. They feel free to ask questions. Jesus has this way of making himself available to people in their times of need. All we need to do is show people his love.


  8. Lynn says:

    Is it only my view, or does aggressive personal evangelization assume that the person who is targeted for saving needs to be treated as if they don’t have the ability to think for themselves? They must be led? If so, that’s quite an insult. Showing someone the truth is one thing, but making it a personal mission to make sure they agree that it is truth, and that only one version of that truth is allowed, is another thing entirely. Free will and all that.


    • This is a good observation, Lynn. Actually, though they do not actually say this, thinking for yourself is a problem for many evangelicals. They promote thinking according to what the Bible says, but their understanding of the Bible is based on what others in the past have determined it to mean so that many major doctrines are considered unquestioned ‘truths’.

      Even personal evangelists often do not think for themselves significantly beyond choosing to subscribe to the evangelical perspective. Of course, these are only general statements and do not apply to all evangelicals.


  9. Lana says:

    Great post.


  10. bostonfyre says:

    If we are IN Christ, then the Holy Spirit is alsways moving us toward divine appointments and opportunities to love on others. He goes before us, making the way by preparing hearts and souls both out there, and also with in you, to be ready to receive, filling us up to be poured out, sharing, exhorting, encouraging, or lifting up those around us, to bring the Good News, by offering in word and/or deed, a piece of the Bread they need in that moment. We share Christ in us, our hope of glory, by breaking open our lives, perhaps sharing our own testimony, as way of demonstrating in brokeness, how YHWH/Yahoshua/Hakodesh has, and will continue to transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit, from the moment we choose Him, invite Him in, and make Him Lord in our lives..Yes, its a process…but like anything else..we must first decide whom we will serve. We must decide to move in a certain direction, toward Him and his provision for us, or our own way, in our own finite strength…From the moment we are born into this earth, we are dying..but as Abba Father calls to us through the life, death and resurrection of His son Yahoshua, Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit will lead us to Him, to show us that it is in dying , we also come to Live. Meanwhile, make us ready Lord, and let us each be found being about our Father’s business, whatever our gifts and calling in Him, and to have enough oil in our lamps when Jesus comes. Light obliterates darkness, so let His life in you shine like the beacon of hope you are made to be!


  11. Pingback: The Problem of Impersonal Evangelism | Jesus Without Baggage

  12. Wonderful article!


  13. Eric says:

    God has shown his love by sending Jesus to pay for our sins if we acknowledge we are sinners and make Jesus our Lord and Saviour. His desire is that all would be saved. See John 3:16. That is the great news. God does not force anyone to do this. He respects our right to reject him. The is however a cost / consequence for every decision that we make. Just as God is love he is also totally holy as well. He can not tolerate sin in his presence that has not been paid for by death. That is the cost of sin. Jesus has provided that payment if we accept but if not we pay it our self with our being justly condemned to hell. While the act of salvation is a point in time event we are also called to continue to grow in our relationship with God after that point. That is a lifetime long process and allows God to bring the gives of the Holy Spirit into operation in our life to bless us on a continuing basis.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Eric, it is probably apparent to you, as it is to me, that we do not agree on these perspectives. We can discuss them a bit further if you wish, but I don’t think we are going to agree.


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