Advocacy evangelism

The best we can do is be on people's side and let them discover for themselves the power of the gospel in human lives.

James Ayers, a Ph.D. candidate in patristics at Boston College, pastors the First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is the author of "The Gifts of Evangelism: God's Purpose and Call for the Evangelists in Your Church."

The summer I worked second shift at the factory, I didn't enjoy much social life. Early afternoon was the only time I had for visiting with people, but all my friends had daytime jobs and weren't available. One day, just for someone to talk to, I drove to the house of my high school English teacher.

In school we had talked several times about faith: I with the rough fervor of a new Christian and he an agnostic. The good teacher that he was, he always urged me to explore an issue fully, and he did it with the mild cynicism of someone who had seen more of life than a know-it-all 17-year-old. On this particular afternoon he invited me out to the picnic table in his backyard, and over sandwiches and a game of chess we talked about my up coming plans for seminary and ministry. He spoke about his fears that teaching might be a dead-end career for him. He worried that once he finished his master's degree the salary would still not provide an adequate living for his family. He admitted his frustration: he had set goals that he could never reach.

I had done some reading since high school, and it seemed like the right time, so I asked where the problem might be. God created each of us with a specific purpose in mind. If we deliberately choose not to explore the nature of that purpose, we are bound to be frustrated. Whenever we try to do something other than God's best, we can't help feeling like we are missing something.

My remarks brought an immediate response. All his objections to Christianity came tumbling out. Some were easier to answer than I expected; others were complex. After a while I said, "You've asked some wonderful questions. I don't know the answers to all of them, though I've got some ideas about where to look them up. Even so, it will take some time to work through them. I'm certainly willing to try. But let me ask you something first. If we eventually succeed in answering all your objections so that you be come confident in your own mind that Christianity is in fact true, would you become a Christian?"

"No," he replied. "I don't think I would."

"That's a strange answer," I said. "It seems to me that you have something other than intellectual objections."

By then I was almost late for work, and so we had to leave it there. When we visited again on several occasions, we were never able to get past that point.

Responding to people's opposition

The issue fascinated me ever since. Even when the right answer is obvious, many people have a hard time accepting it. They insist on holding on to their opinions, right or wrong. Even when they discover that one of their beliefs is wrong, they prefer to go on believing it anyway. To them truth is not as important as their opinion.

For many the real hesitation about commitment to Christ is not intellectual reservation concerning the truth of Christianity, but the demand of that truth on their lives. Coming to Christianity demands a change in the direction of life: from being under the drift of self to coming under the command of Christ. That's not easy.

Faced with indifference and resistance to accepting truth, church members often hope for a secret formula so that when they say the right words people will give up their hesitation and freely and gladly accept Christ. Such a hope is unrealistic for two reasons.

The first is the experience of God Himself. God calls His people, but they keep turning away. There doesn't seem to be anything that He can do about it other than express His distress: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?" (Hosea 11:7-9, NIV). In spite of their rebellion, God invites His people to reason with Him and be for given, but to no avail (Isa. 1:2,18,21-31).

Christ anguishes over Jerusalem, longing to gather the people like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, but they will not let Him (Luke 13:34). God wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), and yet He cannot do what He wants: some will choose Him; others will not (2 Peter 2:3,12). If the resistance that people can marshal against God's love is such that even He comes to the limit of what He can do, then can we who are human come up with a magic formula that will automatically convince people to give their hearts to Christ?

The second reason is the reality of the power of resistance. Human inclination is to say no to God. Adam and Eve said it (Gen. 2:16,17; 3:6). So did Pharaoh (Ex. 5:2). So did Israel (Num. 13:30-14:10; Judges 2:11-13; Neh. 9:6-37). So did Jerusalem (Matt. 27:22) and Christ's own disciples (John 6:66).

How do we deal with such situations? Our natural response is to be more forceful and persuasive, hoping somehow that we will win them over to Christ. In the process, we would hardly notice the shift in emphasis from Christ to winning. In our intention to defeat the opposition, we would search for a sure-fire method that would compel them to acquiesce.

That, however, was not the style of Jesus' evangelism. He consistently placed Himself on the side of the people with whom He spoke, instead of opposing them. He was counted a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19); He ate and drank with them (Matt. 9:10). He treated with dignity the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). He befriended and helped the woman at the well (John 4:7-26). He talked to and touched lepers (rather than healing them from a safe distance), and encouraged them to be reintegrated into society (Mark 1:44).

Jesus did confront people directly when this was necessary. He denounced the religious leaders of Jerusalem forcefully (Matt. 23:13-36; John 8:13-59). And yet He could deal gently with a Pharisee like Nicodemus and confront him with his lack of insight (John 3:1-11). Here Jesus was more like a teacher, wanting to challenge His students to further growth, rather than a critic tearing down an opponent.

When we see ourselves as people's advocates rather than opponents, two things happen. First, we will be less confrontational with people and more oriented to ministering to their needs. Second, we will view everyone as potentially on the side of the gospel.

Ministering to people

The Scriptures describe our inmost being as deceitful, and incurably so (Jer. 17:9). Yet from that inmost being we thirst for God, longing to come and be hold His face (Ps. 42:1,2). To be human is to experience this mixture of conflicting desires, thoughts, and emotions. Many of these feelings are self-centered and antagonistic to God. But others motivate us to be quite open to discovering His purpose for us.

As people interested in people, we can help them affirm the desires they already have to experience God's purpose coming to fulfillment. Since these aren't their only desires, they will feel a sense of conflict, but it certainly doesn't need to be between them and us. Let me emphasize this: the primary debate isn't be tween what they want and what we want, but specifically in their own mind as to what they really want. The real conflict is within themselves. Rather than being the adversary of some of the things within them, we can actively choose to be the advocate of some of the other things within them.

Consider, for example, Bob, who has developed a pattern of lying when circumstances go awry. Bob knows that lying is wrong and that it only makes things worse. He has tried to break this habit many times. Again and again, though, he finds himself lying. He feels guilty. His deepest pain arises from the realization that he is going to keep on lying because he doesn't have the strength to change.

We might tell Bob that the Bible says that he shouldn't tell lies (Col. 3:9). Or we might assure him that his sins can be forgiven (Mark 2:5). But wouldn't the gospel cause be better served if we suggested that in Christ's power he could overcome his bondage (Phil. 4:13)?

How do we do this? Begin with some encouragement. Gently move Bob to set for himself a goal of living a life of truth. Show that God can give him the strength to overcome his weakness. Let him see within the body of Christ an ongoing, supportive community where he can sense freedom from his bondage and the power to change. Provide opportunities for him to know that the death of Christ frees us from guilt and that God's grace is sufficient to meet all needs, particularly Bob's own desire to be a man of integrity.

Take the case of Maria. She cares for her family well. She serves on the PTA. She bakes a casserole for her neighbors when there is an illness in their family. She is a model wife and mother. And yet she feels her life lacks meaning. What's wrong? Why doesn't her life seem fulfilling? Should she go back to school? Should she go back to work? She knows people who have done both; some love it, some hate it, and some say it actually comes out about as frustrating as being at home. What do we say to Maria?

Instead of the usual talk about the problems of a sinful world, begin with her feelings. Say something like this: "Your feelings do convey a message. I believe God created each one of us with a special purpose in mind. If we can discover that purpose, if we can learn how to fulfill God's will for our lives, then our lives will become truly satisfying. I think I've found out a few things about what God wants me to do, although I'm not always too good at following through on them. And if you like, I'd be glad to share with you as to how that happens, and maybe we can both learn more together."

Maria may tell you she doesn't think God exists and be angry for suggesting He does. Even then, if you ask her why she feels the way she does, you may be in for a fascinating conversation. More likely, however, because of the genuineness of her search for answers, she may well say something like "You really believe that, don't you? All right. I would like to find out more about this will of God. If He has one for me, I would like to know about it."

Viewing people as on our side

The second consequence of viewing our evangelistic selves as people's advocates is this: If we are on their side, then it follows that they are on our side. That, in turn, means that we ought to treat them that way.

Rebecca Pippert offers an example of this experience seen through the eyes of Stephanie, a friend of hers who was drawn into the faith through watching her struggle to live as a follower of Christ. "You know what affected me most? All my life I used to think, How arrogant for someone to call himself a Christian, to think he's that good. But then I got to know you and Becky; you are far from perfect, yet you call yourself a Christian. So my first shock was to discover you 'blow it' like I do. But the biggest shock was that you admitted it, where I couldn't. Suddenly I saw that being a Christian didn't mean never failing, but admitting when you've failed. I wanted to keep Christ in a box and let you be religious during Bible studies. But the more you let me inside your life, the more impossible it became to keep the lid on Christianity. Even your admission of weakness drove me to Him!" 1

As we talk to people we need to understand that they are in the midst of the same struggle we are in. If we have come further in the faith than they have, it is only a little further, and it is only because of His grace. Therefore, rather than judging that they are heathen and that we are not, we need to respond to them as people who have begun the long process of hearing and accepting the truth of the gospel.

How do we do this? Welcome the hesitant ones warmly to the body of Christ. Play the role of an advocate. Provide them opportunities to know, to follow, and to grow in Jesus. Invite them to worship or study, not with a sense of paternalism or condescension, but with a genuine feeling of sharing and friendship.

Seeing people as on our side means asking them to pray for us. Whenever I have done this, people often express the feeling that their prayers are not as good as the preacher's. But the fact that I requested them to pray would help motivate some to go ahead and pray and to discover that God was interested in listening to their prayers just as much as mine.

Seeing them as on our side means asking for their advice on issues we are facing. They may well have genuine spiritual insight, and in offering that counsel, they will come to believe in it themselves.

Seeing them as on our side means that we will let them see our own need of grace and forgiveness in our struggle with sin. When people see our authentic desire to live a life directed by the grace of Christ, they would see in themselves a similar longing, and seek to experience that same grace in their lives. C. S. Lewis, speaking to an Anglican conference on apologetics, commented on the difficulty of convincing ordinary nonreligious people of their sinfulness. Harping on sins that they don't commit or sins that they don't feel are wrong doesn't do the job. Honesty about our own temptations and failures often turns out to be far more useful. "I cannot offer you a watertight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one's own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home." 2

Seeing people as on our side also means encouraging them to speak about their faith to others. It may seem strange to suggest that those who have not yet made their own public profession of faith in Christ should be recruited as evangelists. Yet not so strange! Long before the disciples believed Jesus to be the Christ, they were called to be fishers of men (Mark 1:17; 3:14; Luke 5:10). How complete was the awareness of the Twelve (Mark 6:7) or the seventy (Luke 10:1) when they were sent out to tell the mes sage of Christ? Apollos was a notable evangelist even before he heard the entire message (Acts 18:24-28).

If we had to wait until we comprehended the message of the gospel fully before we could say anything at all about faith in Christ, none of us would ever get to talk and as a result none of us would ever get to hear about the kingdom. As it is, with the best effort in the world, we only get to listen to imperfect proclamations of the gospel.

In his study of communication, per suasion, and evangelism, Em Griffin suggests that one of the most effective ways of getting high school kids to consider the Christian faith is to ask them to come up with reasons a person should be a Christian. Not that they necessarily have to agree with those reasons; they simply help make a list of "the benefits of being a Christian." They come up with dozens, and they tend to remember best the ones that they themselves suggest.3

Asking people to talk about their faith, regardless of how deep it is, gives them an opportunity to grow in that faith. Instead of making them dependent on our reasons for believing, it gives them an opportunity to develop their own.

When people have a strong inner sense of opposition to the gospel of Christ, like my English teacher, we will not be able to overcome the antagonism from the out side. We cannot win them over by being antagonists in faith. What we can do is be on their side and let them see the power of the gospel released in human lives. Jesus placed Himself on the side of the people He talked to. He saw no need to place Himself in opposition to them. He gave them the opportunity to receive the things they wanted most: forgiveness, purpose, healing, restoration. He was their advocate. We can be no less.

1. Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker: Evangelism as a Way of Life (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), pp. 29, 30.

2. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 96.

3. Em Griffin, The Mind Changers: The Art of Christian Persuasion (Wheaton, 111.: Tyndale Press, 1976), p. 93.

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James Ayers, a Ph.D. candidate in patristics at Boston College, pastors the First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is the author of "The Gifts of Evangelism: God's Purpose and Call for the Evangelists in Your Church."

May 1992

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