Author: Rev Derek Simpson
Category: Proclamation Evangelism
Students, taking a course that covers many aspects of evangelism, frequently quote this saying, usually wrongly attributing to St. Francis of Assisi, when they are writing an assignment specifically about the importance of preaching; the public proclamation of the gospel. Many go on to write more generally about ‘communicating’ or ‘exemplifying’ the gospel and write about everything but preaching!
This reflects a disturbing trend that I have observed for more than twenty years. There is a lack of confidence in preaching. What I am writing here reflects my own experience and that of other evangelists. Sadly, this trend became evident at the start of the decade of evangelism! [i]
Many denominations appointed ‘officers’ for ‘the Decade’. Most often, they were people with pastoral experience, rarely evangelists. One such officer persuaded a church, with which I had worked successfully before, to cancel a mission I was leading. He told me; “I have decided to keep all evangelists out of all of our churches for the whole of the decade of evangelism.” He reasoned that if churches didn’t use evangelists to lead missions and to preach, the congregation would evangelise instead. Such cancellations happened a number of times, yet none of these churches introduced alternative programmes of evangelism. Of course, other approaches could have been followed additionally; generally, preaching missions are most effective where the church is reaching out most effectively.
Very influential at that time was an extensive report called ‘Finding Faith’. [ii] This report was seriously flawed in that it did not define either ‘faith’ or a ‘Christian’. It relied on the respondents reports of changes in thinking and church attendance. While much helpful material was contained in the report, a few key statistics were widely reported and subsequently influenced the thinking of many to the detriment of gospel preaching. A common conclusion was that for too long the church had expected people to be converted suddenly in response to preaching (‘Crisis’ evangelism) when demonstrably most people come to faith gradually (‘Process’ evangelism). Frequently quoted from ‘Finding Faith’ was that the majority of people said that the most significant factor in their coming to faith was a friend or a relative, while only 4% said it was an evangelist.
So, many concluded that ‘Proclamation’ evangelism ‘didn’t work’ and gave up on preaching, turning instead to ‘Friendship’ evangelism. Of course, this is an entirely false antithesis. Evangelists have always taught that all Christians are called to live consistently as followers of Jesus, to serve the people around them and to witness to their faith. But the church must also use the evangelists God has given to preach the good news. [iii] In 1983, as we prepared churches for ‘Mission England’, we took to thousands of churches a presentation which said, “More than 80% of non-Christians attending a Billy Graham meeting have been personally prayed for and invited by a friend.” [iv] Almost half of the people on our buses were not Christians. None of them were strangers; they came with the Christian inviting them. About half occasionally attended some Christian meeting. Many of these guests professed faith in Christ and went on to become mature disciples and sometimes leaders in churches.
When I think of the thousands of evangelistic meetings in which I have participated and of the people who have come to Christ through them, I am confident of this: many (most?) will have forgotten the name of the preacher, but they will not have forgotten the person who befriended them, witnessed to them, invited them and helped them afterwards to become a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Of course, the friend’s role was more ‘significant’, than the preacher, but both had their parts to play. The ‘process’ of evangelism was brought to the ‘crisis’ of conversion.
Imagine that, hungry for news, you turn on your radio or television. You are charmed by a pleasant, smiling person who asks if he may help you in any way. However, you soon become frustrated; he seems to want to do anything but tell you the news! 2,000 years ago, how did a ruler make his edicts known? He sent heralds to every town and village; people would gather eagerly for the latest proclamations of the king. Again, imagine the herald pleasantly saying nothing! He has missed the point and failed in his calling. So does the church when we fail to publicly proclaim the gospel.
Jesus final commission to His Church was to “Go into all the world and preach the good news…” [v] The word used for preach [vi] carries the sense of the official messenger who delivers publicly and clearly the message as it has been given to him. He is not responsible for the content of the message or for the response to the message, but only for its delivery. The New Testament makes it clear that – whatever else we do – we must deliver the message. So much so that Paul would say, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” [vii]
Paul’s questions about evangelism in Romans 10 [viii] show us that the one essential of evangelism is the clear proclamation of the message to people who need to hear it. He emphasises how God expects people to come to faith. “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message…” [ix]
Are we becoming ashamed of the gospel? Are we losing confidence in the power of the message to change lives? [x]
Typical of the experience of several evangelists I know is the following incident. At an evangelistic meeting dinner, one team-member was to tell his story and then I would preach. Just before we ate, the Pastor organising the event suggested that I shouldn’t preach “because there are a number of non-Christians here”! I went ahead with a simple message focusing on the cross of Christ. Two men professed faith that evening. Eating peas in a Christian way wasn’t enough! Words were needed – the message of the Gospel proclaimed by one called to do so.
Several Christian leaders have been asked to continue the conversation by responding to this lead article.
Rev. Derek Simpson, Evangelist and Pastor of Leominster Baptist Church, UK
[i] The last decade of the 20th century was declared a ‘decade of evangelism’; this was taken up by most of the mainstream churches in Britain.
[ii] Finding Faith Today: How Does It Happen? Stonehill Green: British and Foreign Bible Society, 1992. ISBN 0-564-08475-1 produced by John Finney, Church of England Officer for the Decade of Evangelism.
[iii] Ephesians 4:11
[iv] Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ‘Operation Andrew’, 1983. Based on John 1:40-41.
[v] Mark 16:15NIV
[vi] Strong’s Concordance: kηρυσσω To be a herald, to officiate as a herald; to proclaim after the manner of a herald, always with the suggestion of formality, gravity and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed. The most common word for ‘preach’ in the New Testament.
[vii] 1 Corinthians 9:16 NIV
[viii] Romans 10:13-15
[ix] Romans 10:17NIV
[x] Romans 1:16NIV, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”