Many followers of Christ experience an “opportunity gap” when it comes to sharing their faith, Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said in a November 2, 2014, sermon.
The “opportunity gap” is the disconnect that takes place between “speaking to God about men and speaking to men about God,” he said.
Pointing to Colossians 4, Ezell contrasted Paul’s request for prayer with “bulk” prayers he often hears in church settings.
We pray for “all the lost people in the world” as opposed to “praying for specific people in your life who do not know the Lord,” he said in his sermon at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Ezell now serves as interim pastor.
“We say that we’re concerned and love certain people, but we never actually share with them the Gospel; and we know that without the Gospel we die and go to hell. . . . On the one hand, we say we love them, but on the other hand we don’t share,” he lamented.
I began to become aware of this “opportunity gap” the day following my conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. I trusted the Lord in a Monday night revival service during the final week of my sophomore year in high school.
As I was leaving the building after the service that night, the evangelist caught up with me and asked if I would tell at least one person at school the next day that I had been saved.
A naturally shy person, I sweated bullets at the idea. So, I was amazed at the interest expressed by several of my friends when I shared a brief testimony at the lunch table of my conversion to faith in Jesus.
I began to pray for several of these friends at that time, a “prayer-for-the-lost” practice that continues to this day. Over the years, I have bumped into several sign-posts that continue to remind me of the vital connection of prayer and evangelism.
The College Blue Book
Several of my university professors gave essay tests and required us to use “blue book” examination booklets. Noting the blue book’s eight and one-half inch height, I trimmed the width to fit in my Bible and began entering the names of students I met who needed the Lord. I prayed for them by name each day during my quiet time. With their names routinely on my heart through prayer, I began seeking—and seeing—and seizing—opportunities to talk with them about their need for salvation.
Looking back as college graduation approached, I noted several things. One, some of their hearts began to soften toward the things of the Lord, with the result that some had been saved. Two, the Lord put people in my path over whom I had not prayed, but who were hungry for the Gospel. I concluded from this that the Lord often sends those in whose hearts He had begun to work to those He knows care about souls. Three, some of the people I agonized over in prayer remained (apparently) unchanged in their response to Christ. And, to this day, I still lift them up in prayer to the Lord of the harvest.
The Conversational Prayer Group
In my first full-time ministry position as minister of youth and education in a church of about eighty-five in weekly worship, the Lord gave me a “person of peace.” This older gentleman, a new believer in Christ, had a tender heart toward God and a desire to see his friends saved.
We began to make evangelistic visits together. Soon, there was another new convert, then another. The four of us began to meet weekly for prayer. Using Rosalind Rinker’s Conversational Prayer as a guide, we began to pray for other lost friends. Our prayer times were truly “conversational,” as we talked openly and freely with the Lord about opening doors of opportunity to share the Gospel.
God began drawing people to Himself. Soon we had as many as twelve couples crammed into one of our homes each week for a time of fellowship and Bible study. Over the course of one calendar year, the Lord added more than forty new adult believers and several children to the church through the waters of baptism.
The Wednesday Night Prayer Time
After two years on staff, the Lord allowed me the privilege to become pastor of a newly constituted church in Arkansas. Our first Sunday saw four men, about eighteen women, a few teenagers, and a gaggle of children assemble for worship.
That Wednesday night, a small crowd gathered for prayer time. After the usual prayers for the sick and bereaved, I asked for the first names of lost people that were on our hearts.
After a long pause, someone mentioned a name and someone else mentioned a couple of more names. I wrote them down in a reconstituted “blue book.”
The following Wednesday, we read those three names aloud and spent time praying for their salvation. Soon the list began to grow—four names, then six, then ten, then even more names. For six months we prayed for the top ten names each week and as many of the others as we got to before the prayer hour ended.
At the end of six months, we reviewed the top ten names on the list. Each one had either been saved or had gotten back in church during that period of time. Some of our folks who prayed had also had the privilege to lead their friends or family members to faith in Christ. That experience encouraged our folks, revitalized our small church, propelled us to many years of continued growth and outreach, and, of course, generated new names on the prayer list!
The “Do You Believe” Challenge
Upon arrival five years later as the youngest-ever pastor of an established church in what became a twenty-one-year ministry, I sought to engage the congregation with a pointed question—“Do you really believe that someone in Martin, Tennessee, is longing for you to tell him or her about Jesus?”
This became a frequent question in Sunday morning and evening services, in newsletter articles, and in personal conversations.
As is often the case in established churches, many of the members said they did not even know any lost people. But, little by little that began to change. People who had never shared their faith began to engage long-time friends in Gospel conversations. Folks were saved. Lives were changed. The baptismal waters were stirred. And the church was reenergized.
The LampLighters Ministry
Several years later, reading of the “prayer, care, and share principle” in a brochure, we used the idea to develop a lifestyle prayer/evangelism initiative designed to soften the hearts of the hard-to-reach. As we designed this simple ministry leaflet, we also drew from Ralph Neighbor’s “five and five principle” in his Survival Kit for New Christians (available through LifeWay)—that every new believer knows at least five people who would be open to a Gospel witness and five others who would be harder to reach and thus would need focused prayer.
The LampLighters’ form provided space to write the names of up to seven people who needed Christ, with an annual prayer calendar underneath the names—the “prayer” component.
It also listed about twenty-five suggestions about ways to show “care” to these individuals, such as sending a birthday card, offering to mow the grass when they’re on vacation, taking them a loaf of homemade bread, or picking up their children from school; and encouraged a variety of ways to “share” the Gospel with these friends. These ranged from getting them under the sound of the Gospel at a special church event to sharing a personal testimony to opening the Scriptures and sharing a plan of salvation.
We began identifying various church events with the LampLighter symbol to encourage our folks to bring their prayer-covered friends with them to further soften their hearts with the Gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ. We also provided random opportunities for people to share LampLighter testimonies in the services.
“Just One More Soul”
After thirty years of vocational church ministry, twenty-five years as pastor, the Lord led us to a denominational post. Not long after arriving in my current position, a representative from National Geographic called the SBC Executive Committee offices seeking help for a feature on “sacred waters.” They were wanting to photograph a Baptist congregation gathered for an outdoor baptism.
I called several friends. These are their stories.
“We just held our annual outdoor baptism last week. It was a blessing; but we were down in our baptisms by a couple from last year.”
“We just held an outdoor baptism last week and don’t have anyone awaiting baptism right now. It looks like we’ll be down a few from last year.”
“That would be great. We’re holding our annual outdoor baptism at the lake next month. We’d love to host National Geographic! We’ve had a great year, but we won’t baptize quite as many this year as we did last year.”
During my quiet time early the next morning, those words kept ringing in my ears—“we’re down just a few.”
I thought, if each church in the Southern Baptist Convention is down just one baptism in the same year, that would create a forty-six thousand drop in baptisms across the SBC. Then I looked at the baptism records over the past two decades. This kind of decline corresponds amazingly with what our baptism reports show.
The words began to pulse within me as I walked and prayed: “Just one more soul, Lord; just one more soul. What would happen if every pastor and every church began to pray ‘Just one more soul’?”
I shared this with my boss, Morris H. Chapman, president of the Executive Committee. It resonated with him. When he announced his retirement plans a few weeks later, he urged the Executive Committee members to join him in praying for “just one more soul” during the final year of his leadership of the EC.
I redesigned the LampLighter form as a “Just One More Soul” reminder and frequently use this simple prayer leaflet when invited to preach in churches.
The Three Circles
Given this lifelong fascination with the intersection of prayer and evangelism, you can imagine my excitement when NAMB rolled out “The Three Circles,” its new evangelism initiative, at last year’s SBC annual meeting (see www.SBCLife.net/Articles/2014/09/sla5). The Three Circles is simple, easy to use, and powerful.
In Ezell’s “Opportunity Gap” sermon at Long Hollow, he introduced The Three Circles to several thousand people in a single service. He showed how they can share their faith with others so simply that it can be drawn on a napkin in a coffee shop.
In his sermon, he rightly showed the interconnectedness of prayer and evangelism and the too-frequent disconnect that takes place between “speaking to God about men and speaking to men about God.”
The Lord uses our verbal witness as the means of drawing men and women, boys and girls unto Himself. We must talk to others about God through personal evangelism.
Only the Holy Spirit can breathe life-giving power into the words we share and eternity-changing life into the empty hearts of the lost. We must talk to God about others through prevailing prayer.
We speak up; then we speak out. God gives the increase . . . and receives the glory.