We met when he was in third year at high school and I in second. He was my brother’s friend and a staunch atheist. He was also one of the most awkward people I’d ever met so naturally we got on well.
Of course, being an antagonistic atheist, some of what he said did indeed antagonise me, leading to many a conversation lead into from many an angle (usually scientific) about God. He, being two years older than me, fiercely intelligent, and knowing everything, thought he had the upper hand. I, on the other hand, being two years younger with gaps in my education but still knowing everything, actually did have the upper hand, not for any of the above reasons but simply because I had God.
Over the years, our conversation became more pensive, moral, and philosophical as teenage angst slipped in and the real world began to close in around us. Then he went to university to study chemical engineering and a year later I moved North to study the weird one that sounds like geology but isn’t. He’s done well for himself. We’ll both graduate this year and he’s an agnostic now, he thinks. He’s not sure.
We met the other day for the first time in over a year. It made me happy that he’s as awkward as ever but it pained me to see the soul-deep sorrow dancing beneath the assertion of the well-paid job and exciting career awaiting him after graduation.
You see, nine years later, Aidan is not a Christian, despite hundreds of conversations. I haven’t the courage to count up the hours spent talking with him, going round and round and round and always ending up standing by the same question mark that is Jesus. The thing about leading people to Christ is that sometimes you have to do it again and again.
But hours of conversation and prayer and nearly half of my life later, Aidan still does not believe.
Was it time wasted? Was this a failure?
* * *
This summer, a few good friends and I spent a week in a small village near London (but not London as we were repeatedly reminded), helping out with evangelism at the local church replanted by a fine brother we know.
It was hot. There were some very rude people in the village. We knocked on hundreds of doors and gave out thousands of invites and gospel tracts. There were meetings and events every day, often several a day, and school assemblies to boot.
I think, personally, I had four good conversations (worthy of follow-up) that week.
And now? A few months later?
Well, there are regular assemblies taken by members of the church as well as a mums and tots group and the whole community is aware that the church exists. One guy has even started coming to church regularly. But no one has been saved as of yet.
So was it actually successful? Or did all that time and energy and planning and resources go to waste? Was it just a fun but exhausting failure?
* * *
Today Tommy (our church’s official evangelist) and I were in town. Tommy preached while I handed out tracts, prayed, and spoke with people as opportunities presented themselves.
There was a lot of laughter from the schoolkids and some mocking from the adults. There was also a lot of general embarrassment in passers-by. There always is. Only madmen and fanatics shout in the street. It’s not the done thing.
So Tommy preached and I handed out maybe fifty tracts or so but there was little engagement. One young man stopped and listened intently so we spoke to him. He’s an English Lit student but he’s interested in these things and trying to be open-minded. He has one Christian friend who talks to him and prays for him and he’s been going to a bible study working through Romans. He’s also been reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (what a legend!). But all that came of the conversation (that I know of) was some thought on the young man’s part and prayer on ours. On the positive side, he’s in a dangerous place, he now has three people praying for him.
But a handful of tracts, a brief sermon, and a conversation in the cold and no apparent results. Did Tommy do his voice in for nothing? Did I drag myself away from my lovely warm duvet this morning for no reason? Was our brief time in town a failure?
* * *
Failure. That shameful little mongrel of a concept that follows us all around, nipping at our ankles and growling in the night.
And success? It wears a suit and a tie. It means business. It means results.
In the world’s eyes success means results, good results and lots of them as fast as possible. Failure is the wrong results or not enough results or just no results.
What does that mean for us as the Church in regards to evangelism?
Is the time and prayer given to Aidan and many like him wasted? Was the (not) London week of evangelism, and many like it, a failure? We can’t really count street preaching and conversation a success?
If this is true, I fear that the majority of the Church’s evangelism today cannot be counted as successful. We would be better having Ceilidhs in the city square and giving away BMXs and bacon rolls like some do. It’s no wonder they pity our poor, old-fashioned efforts since we have neither the resources nor the glamour to match them. But they have results — countable, visible results. Hundreds come to their concerts and events and many end the evening with the Sinner’s Prayer. Is that not success?
Well, it would appear to come down to two closely related things: What is success? and what is evangelism?
Success is ‘the accomplishment of an aim or purpose’. Simple.
So what’s evangelism? There are many churches who believe in evangelism, defining it as ‘reaching people’, more commonly referred to in contemporary Christianese as ‘building bridges’. You know, getting to know people and ‘doing life’ with them. (Yeah, I’m not sure what that means either.)
I suppose, done rightly, these things aren’t wrong. In fact, they are good and right and commendable. But just as hell is only half of the message, bridge building is only half of the method.
‘Reaching people’ is not a full enough definition because it doesn’t really mean anything on its own.
What we should be doing is not just reaching people but reaching people with the Gospel. That is evangelism. It’s in the name: evangelion, good news, gospel.
Evangelism comes in many shapes and forms. I would cautiously suggest that it looks different from person to person but no matter what words are used and no matter what the outward appearance, the beating heart of it remains the same: preach Christ and him crucified. Communicate the gospel.
That’s why we build bridges — to cross them and deliver the message entrusted to us. For now, I am trusting you to know what this message of hope is, how to build bridges, and the importance of bringing the gospel to the lost. It may, however, be helpful to look at these things a little more another time.
But time is wearing away so let us return to Aidan and to (not) London, and to this morning and the question: what constitutes ‘successful’ evangelism?
Evangelism’s aim is to reach people with the gospel. We want people to come to faith, of course we do, but we also know that this is not within our power. Our responsibility, our goal, is to preach Christ to lost souls. We bring them to him and trust him to deal with them.
So those hours with Aidan were not wasted because now he has heard the truth a hundred times over. That week in the village near London is not a failure because the whole village knows where to go to hear the truth, and other opportunities to preach the gospel have opened up as a result. And this morning? Passers-by heard whether they cared to or not. And at least one young man with a blue jacket and questioning eyes has heard the gospel and is in the dangerous position of having three souls pleading his case.
We are sowers, planting and watering, faithfully scattering the precious seed wherever we go. We are signposts pointing to a cross and an empty tomb.
As long as those we speak to hear the one true gospel and are brought before Christ, our evangelism is successful. We merely bring lost souls to him. What happens next is not in our power, but we can and do pray. It is not about numbers, about countable, tangible, quick, bountiful results. It is, and always has been, about bringing the gospel to the lost.
Happy New Year x