I’m starting a series of interviews with some of my good friends who are gifted by the Lord to serve his kingdom. We’re going to hear from missionaries, open air preachers, scholars, and more on the topic of evangelism. I hope you find it challenging and educational.
In this interview, we are hearing from Elliot Clark. He’s served for years overseas as a missionary, and now works full time training pastors and ministers around the world to know and teach God’s Word to their flocks.
How has serving as a missionary changed your understanding of evangelism?
Serving as a missionary helped me see the benefit of external motivations to preach the gospel. I wouldn’t characterize myself as an evangelist per se, with special gifting for personal evangelism. However, when my job description and field accountability specifically called for evangelizing others, I found myself more actively pursuing gospel conversations. Based on my interactions with other Christians, I assume my experience is not unique.
Many Christians are hesitant to evangelize their neighbors and friends and coworkers. They don’t want to experience social shame. They don’t want to fumble over hard questions or give wrong answers. They don’t want to threaten their closest relationships. But when others encourage and challenge them to pursue evangelism, they eventually reach the point of breaking the silence. Such motivation can take many forms. Personal accountability, church events or programs, words of support, and evangelism training can all be helpful in promoting witness. I’ve also found that when a church has a culture of evangelism, when communicating the gospel is celebrated and emphasized, people end up catching the vision. What this means is that even though our evangelism is often personal, we do it best in the context of an evangelizing community, the church.
What’s the difference between evangelism as most churches in America understand it, and evangelism on the mission field, in a place like Central Asia?
The famous line from “Field of Dreams” captures the typical American approach to evangelism: “If you build it, they will come.” This means our evangelistic efforts are often event-based and location-specific. In fact, we have a long history of promoting large crusades or tent revivals, events that draw a crowd to hear a gospel presentation. Still today, many churches seek to do evangelism primarily by bringing people in, either to a church building or a community event. They don’t conceive of evangelism first and
foremost as sending people out.
Many Christians are explicitly taught or implicitly assume that inviting their neighbor to church counts as evangelism. But evangelism by definition involves proclamation of a specific message—the good news about Jesus. So, from a biblical perspective, inviting someone to church is not technically evangelism.
For much of our time in Central Asia, we did not meet in a church building. Because of governmental or financial restrictions we could not host an evangelistic event, operate a vacation Bible school, or run a sports camp. When we did organize a Christmas or Easter celebration, we rented out a restaurant and met under much scrutiny. We did invite people to come to such events or to visit church—though for security reasons many church members were fearful of unknown guests. This ultimately meant that the majority of our evangelistic efforts had to take place in homes, in cafes, at parks, and in businesses.
How did you use the Bible in Evangelism when you were serving overseas?
The Bible was central to our witness. We would distribute copies of the word to people in print as well as audio formats. We also advertised in newspapers and online, offering to give a free Bible to anyone who was interested. Those who responded could receive one in the mail or, if it was too dangerous to have it delivered to their house, we could arrange a meeting to give them a Bible in person.
For those who expressed further interest in Christianity, the first step was not usually to invite them to church but to invite them to study the Bible with us. Many Muslims have preconceived ideas about what the Bible is like, or they have common objections to basic tenets of the Christian faith. The Quran in places also speaks highly of the Bible, or of the so called “people of the book.” So sometimes Muslims are curious to hear what the Bible teaches. They’re also often quite surprised when they read it and find it strikingly different than the Quran.
Most Muslims accept the Bible to be God’s word. However, at the same time, they have a deeply-held belief that the Bible has ultimately been corrupted, ruined by Christians who distorted the original revelation. This can be a huge obstacle to evangelism since the hearers reject the authority and accuracy of Christian scripture out of hand.
In light of this, many missionaries or evangelists tend to focus on arguments for the credibility and historical reliability of scripture, perhaps even over against the Quran. However, my approach was typically to let the Bible speak for itself. I wanted unbelieving Muslims to wrestle with the word of God for themselves rather than make historic or textual arguments.
This became, then, my primary approach. I would try to provoke thought in others by quoting surprising words of scripture. I would sometimes try to leave the conversation hanging, or ask questions that made them uncomfortable. I wanted them to chew on it and come back for more. Often I would have to patiently endure their arguments. But then I would try to answer with more scripture.
Many times I would close a conversation by saying, “You see, then, we can’t both be right.” Or, “Look at this verse; the Bible and the Quran cannot both be right, because they say completely opposite things.” My goal was for them to acknowledge the difference and recognize I was submitting to the Bible for my perspective. If I was wrong, it was because the Bible was wrong. But, then again, “what if the Bible was true?”
What are some things concerning evangelism that Christians should think about as our culture has changed, and is changing, so rapidly today?
Increasingly I believe our culture will be more and more suspicious of the church. As people grow hostile toward Christianity and the gospel, they won’t be inclined to attend a church-sponsored event, much less an evangelistic crusade. They will be less and less likely to accept an invitation to church. Pastors who at one time were well-respected citizens will become dubious and distrusted. So we can’t count on their pulpit ministry to be the primary means of our corporate evangelism.
At the same time Christians in our nation, by virtue of their belief in scripture and historic Christian morality, will be perceived as haters: xenophobic, homophobic, and whatever-you- name-it- phobic. Sometimes that designation is deserved because we have demonstrated a striking ability to label people and keep sinners or strangers at a distance, as if we were never like them.
But this is where Christian hospitality becomes so critical. The world is to know we are Christians by our love—love for other believers and love for the world. Around a table and over a meal they can experience some of Jesus’s love and they can hear a winsome presentation of the gospel. I’m convinced more than ever that some people will never come through the door of the church until they have first come through the door of a Christian home.
What should Christians do when they’re afraid to talk to others about the gospel?
Do it anyway. Here the lesson of Ecclesiastes 11:4 is incredibly instructive: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” Fear of inclement weather has kept many a farmer from planting. But those who never sow will never reap. Their barns will be empty at harvest. We too, if we’re too busy trying to discern the times, putting our moistened finger to the wind to see if someone is ready to respond to the gospel, will likely never open our mouths to speak the gospel. And they will not be saved.
We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of a bad reception. We are afraid of so many things, and yet we are not nearly afraid enough. We don’t fear the one who can kill body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28). We don’t have sufficient fear of God, the kind of holy trembling that makes us try to persuade others with the gospel (2 Cor 5:11). The early church grew and multiplied in part because of its evident fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31).
What is God doing right now through the evangelistic efforts of Christians in areas you work with?
I know American missionaries in Muslim countries who tell stories of Jesus while drawing pictures on people’s hands with henna. I know people who are greeting Muslim refugees as they float ashore in Greece, then preach the gospel to them as they feed and clothe them. I know people who teach English to immigrants as a way to build relationships and introduce them to Christ. I know a pastor in Romania who puts together winter care packages for unbelieving widows, then presents the gospel and prays for them on each visit. I know Christians in Nepal, where proselytizing has been outlawed, who struggle to preach the gospel without fear. I know believers who distribute Bibles in places where it is forbidden. I know that many of our brothers and sisters around the globe are faithfully evangelizing in places where it is dangerous to do so.
Where does our joy come from in Evangelism?
Joy comes in obeying Christ’s command. Joy comes in seeing God providentially orchestrate circumstances and arrange events to bring about someone’s salvation. Joy comes in watching God work through you, bringing scripture to your mind as you speak the gospel. Joy comes in watching him work through your spouse, your children, or your evangelism partner. Joy comes in seeing one sinner repent. Joy comes to those who preach the gospel and suffer for doing so.
Evangelism is an endeavor filled with gladness and overflowing with joy. This doesn’t make it easy. But it makes it worth it. Actually, evangelism would be worth it if we had no joy in the journey, if our only reward was God’s name glorified and one sinner saved. But God has designed the labor of evangelism such that we get to reap a harvest and rejoice at the same time.