RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Mike Smith sat in a wooden rocking chair overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and spoke about why people have trouble with evangelism.
“Jesus said, ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.’ He didn’t say every time you fish you’re going to catch something,” said Smith, LifeWay Christian Resources’ FAITH/Evangelism specialist.
“I think we have to celebrate the people who are fishing and not just the people who are catching. We’ve got to encourage people to fish.”
Across the conference center campus in Ridgecrest, N.C., Roy Fish, distinguished professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was preaching a message about evangelism from John 4:35-39.
“There is equality in sowing and reaping,” Fish said. “As Southern Baptists, we have failed to see this. We have made heroes out of reapers. Maybe not consciously, but we have relegated sowers to relative unimportance. The reaper is the person we put in the spotlight.”
Both men and numerous others at LifeWay’s annual National Evangelism and Discipleship Conference repeated the concern over and over: The church must do a better job of discipling its members and the members must do a better job of going outside of the church to evangelize.
“Evangelism is the heartbeat of missions,” said Don Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., and one of the conference’s keynote speakers. “Our mandate is to equip the saints for ministry … [to] reach all people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do that through evangelism. It’s the functional goal for which we strive. Evangelism and discipleship run down parallel tracks. You can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable.”
Churches use all sorts of means to disciple its members. In today’s “one size does not fit all” world, churches have used FAITH and other programs to teach believers how to evangelize. But, as noted at the July conference, young believers are given the tools but not the instructions on how to use them.
“The population is growing but we’re not converting the lost,” Smith said. “We can’t keep doing this and survive. Look at plant life or animals. If they don’t reproduce their own kind, they die. What happens if the church multiplies our kind? If we don’t reproduce our kind, we die. What is the purpose why we exist? It’s to make disciples.”
Smith and Fish acknowledged that people want instant gratification. So, if one presents the Gospel and it is not embraced, many times the person thinks he/she is a failure and doesn’t move on to the next person.
“Sowing must always precede reaping,” Fish said. “[New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President] Chuck Kelley once said, ‘Part of our frustration in evangelism is that we are a reaping denomination. We are living in a field that has not yet been sown.’
“The average person in the United States who comes to Jesus Christ comes the seventh time that he or she hears the message,” Fish continued. “Are you willing to be the No. 4? Are you willing to be the No. 4 five times? There would not be a No. 7 if there wasn’t a No. 4.
“Usually when you sow a seed, you never find out what happened. But when you get to heaven, you will see the results of your sowing,” Fish added. “You will see people you dropped the seed of the Good News of Jesus in their hearts.”
Smith said evangelism confronts Christians with three major issues:
1. Loving People. “People are not a notch on a gospel belt. People aren’t always easy to love,” Smith said. “I think a lot of people look at people like a target instead of being people. They are people that God loves and we are to love. We struggle with loving sinners. It takes time and that means inconvenience.”
2. Loving God. “Jesus said, ‘If you love Me, you’ll obey Me,'” Smith said.
3. Fear. “Fear locks up so many people,” Smith said. “They say, ‘I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing or get asked questions I don’t have answers to. I’m afraid I’ll mess it up.’ But I think our love for God and our love for people will help us overcome these fears. How uncomfortable will they be in eternity if I don’t talk to them?”
Claude King, LifeWay’s editor in chief of leadership and adult publishing, said the greatest evangelism will occur from a foundation of discipleship. The message of Christ’s life and what Christ did for us, when lived out, is contagious, King said.
“People see it. They want it. And people who have it bubble over with vitality,” King said. “That’s really what the Great Commission is all about: As we are going, be serious about making disciples.”
Statistics show that fewer people are coming to church than in previous generations, Smith noted. If that continues, there’s a real possibility of more churches dying from a lack of true biblical discipleship and evangelism.
“I am called to share the Gospel. God’s job is to do the converting,” Smith said. “I’ve got to believe that the Gospel can change your life and I just have to talk to you about it. There comes a point where I have to live my faith and share my faith and I’m going to leave the results up to God.”
Jerry Higgins is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.