When Plain Is Special
It was good to see you and talk with you last Sunday evening during your visit home. I am sorry we didn't have more time to talk after church. You brought up a good question that has had me thinking all this week.
Although your question deserves more of a response than I could give in your presence, I understand it wasn't so pressing as to keep you from socializing with your friends at the Millses' home. The spread that Debbie's mom provides after the evening service has certainly had my mouth watering when I've had to attend an impromptu session meeting to interview potential church members before going to the Millses.
Your question, as I understand it, is this: why doesn't our denomination commit more time and resources to evangelism? I presume the "spiritual emphasis" week at college brought a number of speakers to campus who are conducting fairly impressive forms of outreach. It's funny that you used the word impact in reference to evangelism. That was the word we also heard when I was a student. I would have thought the younger generation might come up with its own word to describe successful evangelism. Then again, the word cool seems to have no expiration date.
Let me suggest a couple of ways to think about our church's apparently weak efforts to evangelize. First, God uses a host of means to save his people. Parents, siblings, and friends often play a significant role in conversion. I once read that well over two-thirds of those who professed faith at Billy Graham's crusades attended with Christian family members or friends who were instrumental in their hearing the gospel. It seems that even the most acclaimed forms of evangelism rely on unrecognized forms of influence. So there may be more to successful evangelism than meets the eye. It could be that highly publicized forms are merely the fruit of seeds already planted by people not recognized as evangelists.
The other consideration that may help you is that throughout Scripture God constantly uses humble and ordinary means to achieve his purposes. Think of Joshua at Jericho and how odd (if not foolish) the Israelites must have looked and sounded as they walked around the city walls blowing their horns. Think of David, who was the youngest and least formidable of Jesse's sons, and yet became Israel's greatest king. Think too of the virgin Mary, an adolescent peasant girl from a seemingly inconsequential Jewish family whom God chose to bear his only begotten son. The disciples were a fairly rough crowd, probably not picked by their contemporaries to be highly influential people. As the apostle Paul himself admitted—a man who likely terrified more Christians initially than he impressed—God chose "earthen vessels" to accomplish his purposes. The reason is so that God, not men or their cleverness, will receive the glory.
The preaching of the word fits this same pattern of God's employing humble and ordinary methods to save his people. It is often forgotten as a means of salvation. According to many "experts" on soul winning and church growth, preaching is old-fashioned, even boring. Paul actually faced similar complaints in his day. The Greeks, the wisest people of the time, thought preaching was a foolish form of communication. Their perception has obviously not gone away. And yet it is precisely through the hearing of the word preached (Rom. 10:14–17) that God converts us. It is hard to accept, but sometimes the things we think are ineffective are actually what God has promised to bless. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:28–29).
This means that every Lord's Day, at least, when every minister of our denomination preaches God's word, evangelism is taking place. As the Shorter Catechism says, the preaching of the word is "an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation" (Q. 89).
This does not mean that we as a church and as believers could not do more to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ. We certainly can. But what is often missed is that we are already engaged in evangelism. Unfortunately, our high view of preaching and the way it informs our ministries in home and foreign missions doesn't count in the eyes of many because it lacks the pizzazz of contemporary ministries. From another angle, though, the faithful, weekly preaching of the word is just as evangelistic as the best-orchestrated and widely advertised rally or conference.
Of course, our form of evangelism may be as plain as a Fourth of July hamburger. But who said we needed to make our ministry of the word as appealing as Mrs. Mills' cooking? If it's any comfort, the Bible seems to indicate that our humdrum ways are in good company.
"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2008.