When it comes to sharing the gospel, many of us pray—a lot. We know that if God doesn’t open the sinful human heart to the gospel, then it will remain closed as tightly as a clam. As J.I. Packer has said, “The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgement of helpless dependence…. what we do every time we pray is to confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty.”
But opening our mouths is more challenging for many of us. Billy Graham, who was both an evangelist and a prayer warrior, would agree: It’s time for more of us to start practicing what we pray, because God sovereignly uses the faithful proclamation of the gospel to answer the prayers of His people.
Many pastors make praying for the lost a priority, of course. According to fresh statistics from the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, the Assemblies of God, and 10 other denominations, a whopping 96 percent of the most evangelistic pastors of small churches pray weekly for non-believers by name. That’s amazing. Not only that, but even among the least evangelistic pastors, 90 percent pray for non-Christians by name every week.
But a somewhat less impressive 87 percent of the most evangelistic pastors actually evangelize the lost. Among the least evangelistic ones, the number is far more concerning—just 65 percent. So, there is a significant nine-point gap among the most evangelistic pastors, and a frightening 25-percent difference between prayer and practice among the least evangelistic pastors. As Paul told Timothy, pastors need to, among their other responsibilities, “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).
How about the people in the pews? Are we “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us] … with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15)?
LifeWay Research, unfortunately, found a similar gap between beliefs and practice. Among believers between the ages of 18 and 29, for example, 85 percent acknowledge their responsibility to share the gospel with non-Christians, with 69 percent feeling comfortable sharing their faith. But only 25 percent of this group looks for ways to share the gospel, with just 27 percent of them intentionally building friendships with non-believers to do so.
However, Barna reports some rare good news in the evangelism practices of Millennials.
While the evangelistic practices of all other generations have either declined or remained static in the past few years, Millennials are the only generation among whom evangelism is significantly on the rise. Their faith-sharing practices have escalated from 56% in 2010 to 65% in 2013.
Not only that, but born again Millennials share their faith more than any other generation today. Nearly two-thirds (65%) have presented the Gospel to another within the past year, in contrast to the national average of about half (52%) of born again Christians.
Good or bad, it’s safe to assume that the sheep in our churches will follow the lead of their shepherds. If pastors are actively sharing their faith with non-Christians, their people will, too. But if pastors don’t lead by example in evangelism, then likely their members won’t, either. So, let’s start practicing what we pray—all of us.
As the BGCE’s Ed Stetzer points out in Christianity Today, in Matthew 9:36-38, Jesus highlighted both prayer and witness: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”
So why don’t more of us back up our praying for the lost with evangelism? “Part of the answer is fear,” Stetzer writes in Influence Magazine. “Since the Garden of Eden, Satan has used fear as a motivator for evil action or evil inaction.”
We don’t want to be seen as pushy or arrogant—or, worse, as “religious fanatics.” We’ve tacitly agreed with the culture that “religion is a private matter” and that going public with our faith is offensive. Try telling that to the first disciples, who “turned the world upside down” with their proclamation about the resurrected Christ (Acts 17:6)! They saw the gospel truly as good news and were eager to share it. Are we? Do we truly believe that the gospel addresses people’s deepest need?
Several things heighten our fear. One might be that we won’t know what to say to our unsaved neighbors and will end up looking stupid. Well, let’s be frank: The Christian belief in a holy, loving God who sent His only Son to die for our sins is stupid in the eyes of the world—foolishness to the Greeks, as the Bible says.
But you don’t have to be a theological rocket scientist to tell others what the Lord has done for you—you’re just, as the old saying goes, one beggar telling another beggar where to find spiritual bread. As Billy Graham said, “The message I preach hasn’t changed. Circumstances have changed. Problems have changed, but deep inside man has not changed, and the gospel hasn’t changed.”
There are plenty of easy-to-read resources to help you tell others the gospel in our largely post-Christin culture. One is “The Story of Reality,” by Gregory Koukl. Another is “The Sacrament of Evangelism,” by Jerry Root and yours truly.
But let me be honest. Though I helped write a book on sharing the good news, it has never come easily for me. Like many, at times I’ve shrunk back from saying what I should out of fear of what others might think, instead of concern for what He thinks. May God forgive me and grant me increasing boldness and opportunities to share His love with the lost. But despite my fears and failures, I have been greatly encouraged to see the Lord use my feeble efforts in evangelism, and He can use yours, too.
And as ambassadors of the King, we can share the good news anywhere. For example, Kathie Lee Gifford boldly said to Megyn Kelly on the “Today Show” the morning Billy Graham died, “If you had the cure for cancer, would you keep it quiet, … hold it, and keep it a secret? I always say, I have a cure for the malignancy of the soul, and He has a name, and it’s Jesus.”
Then there’s the belief that we’re not spiritually gifted in evangelism and thus can leave the task to others, such as Gifford. Well, I’m going to use a word I rarely say out loud: poppycock! The Great Commission isn’t given to a select few; it’s given to all of us, and Jesus promised to be with us as we obey it (Matthew 28:18-20). The Lord has used my faltering, imperfect efforts, and He can use yours, too—because you’re not the issue in evangelism: He is!
To that end, in his article in Christianity Today Ed Stetzer offers some great suggestions to help us get to know our neighbors and share the hope we have: host a community event; meet people where they work, eat, study, and play; and weave the gospel into as many conversations as we can. It’s not easy, but the best things in life rarely are.
Because when it comes to evangelism, the problem isn’t prayer. It’s prayer alone. So, let’s all practice what we pray, pastors and laity. As Stetzer says, “Don’t stop praying. Just make sure you also start going.”
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is an author, with Jerry Root, of The Sacrament of Evangelism.