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FIRST-PERSON: Making evangelism good news again

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–I have two dogs. One is a 14-year-old mutt that is relatively useless, though I still love her. The other, though, is our young Boston terrier named PJ, for “pure joy,” and she is definitely that. Greatest dog I have ever had. Loves to sit in my lap and sleep, but also loves to play. And she is the fastest, highest-jumping dog I have ever seen.

PJ has an absolute obsession with racquetballs. If you simply say the word “ball,” she begins to run in circles. If you actually get the racquetball and indicate that you will play with her, she completely loses her mind. Nothing can keep her from that ball. It is such a sight to see that I actually have videotaped PJ chasing her ball and used it in sermons as an illustration of passion. I got in a little trouble with animal lovers, though, when I showed the video of PJ on my treadmill, chasing the ball I was holding in front of her nose, until I turned the speed up on high and sent her flying. But don’t worry. No animals were injured in the writing of this column.

The interesting thing about PJ’s obsession is that nothing else matters to her when she is after a ball. We have tried offering her food and she ignores it. I even have tried offering her another ball but she is fixated only on the original ball she was after. She is blind to all else. PJ’s passion creates a very narrow world for her where only one thing matters.

Now, that kind of passion could be very helpful to Southern Baptists today –- if only we were passionate about the right things. But it seems like our world often narrows to pursuit of things with no eternal significance. We are caught up in the hurry of our day, focused on our obsessions, and we often are blind to the one thing that matters most –- people who need Jesus. People who God leads right into the middle of our narrowed world. I imagine that I would be crushed if God were to show me all the times I could have led someone to faith in Him, had I not had my eyes blinded by a focus on something no more eternally significant than PJ’s racquetball.

On the days when I do open my eyes to eternal things — the days when I actually watch for those God leads my way — He regularly reminds me that there is nothing quite so wonderful in this world as seeing people come to Him. A few weeks ago, I was at a retreat with the executives from our state conventions. We had just had a great day of prayer together and I was going to the fitness center to work out. I asked a security guard where it was. He told me, and as I turned to walk away, he noticed that I had a scuba magazine in my hand. Scuba diving is a hobby of mine, and this man told me that he was getting certified that weekend. I also found out that he once had lived in a place where I had just returned from a mission trip. And he was in law enforcement and I had been a law enforcement chaplain.

Now, in those days when I live in my narrow world, I would have thought that was an interesting conversation and moved on. But I have seen enough of these types of encounters to know by now that God uses these circumstances to introduce us to those in whom He is at work. I asked my new friend, Daniel, to come talk to me while I ran on the treadmill. He poured out his heart to me that night. I was praying that no one would come into the fitness center so that we would have privacy. But God had a better plan. The door opened and in walked Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. He saw what was happening and I could tell he was praying for me. After four miles of running and witnessing (which is not that easy to do at the same time!) Daniel was ready for God’s gift. I got off the treadmill and led him to Christ. He would not say the prayer I prayed. He fervently cried out to God in his own words. It was amazing. After he left the fitness center, Jim Futral and I just celebrated for a moment what God had allowed us to experience. Daniel needed both Jim’s prayers and my witness and God brought us all together at the same place and time for His purpose. I know neither Jim nor I will ever forget it.

As soon as I finish writing this, I will be calling him for a second follow-up phone visit. Pray for Daniel. And let’s pray for each other. Let’s pray that we won’t miss so many of the precious people God brings our way. Let’s pray that we will replace what is so often our narrow, self-centered focus with the daily passionate, intentional anticipation that if we are willing, God will use us in someone’s life to make evangelism good news again.
John Avant is vice president for evangelization at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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  • John Avant