Solving the Evangelism Equation

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What’s our problem?

In the opening chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus told his apostles to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). This essentially removed all borders from their mission field. “Go to anyone who hasn’t heard, anyone who doesn’t know, and all who refuse to believe.” It was a commission to go and witness without boundaries.

We understand this is still our assignment today. Paul tells Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Jesus commands his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). We’re to be witnesses of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he has done—to the lost people around us.

So why don’t we do it?

Generally speaking, why don’t 21st-century North American self-identifying Christians intentionally share their faith?

A recent study suggests that almost half (47%) of Christian millennials (ages 20 to 34) believe evangelism is wrong. Not uncomfortable or difficult, but wrong. It’s considered an inappropriate cultural faux pas. And the numbers weren’t that much better for those older than 34.

So, let’s be clear: Jesus says, “Be my witnesses,” and many of his so-called followers simply say, “No.”

If that is the current trend, how do you and I avoid being similarly disobedient? How can we grow in our understanding, conviction, and passion to obey the divine mandate of being witnesses to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ? I think Paul’s experience on Mars Hill in Acts 17 can provide us some clarity.

Doing the math

It may be helpful to think of evangelism as an equation. Like any equation, there are parts to it—facets that make up the whole. I want to point out from Acts 17:16–34 four essential components of the evangelism equation.

The audience

The first component is the audience. Evangelism assumes there are people who need to be evangelized. There are lost people; sinners without Jesus Christ and, thus, are under the wrath of God. 

In Acts 17 Paul’s audience was a diverse group of people in the city of Athens. They’re ethnically diverse—both Jew and Greek were present. They’re religiously diverse—he’s in the synagogue and then the marketplace (v. 17).

Paul’s audience was also ideologically diverse.

And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him (v. 18a).

The epicureans were hedonists, believing the purpose of life was happiness and pleasure. “If it feels good, do it.” The stoics were materialists, believing life was about mastering the physical through rationalization. “If it makes sense, do it.” 

Together, these two groups of philosophers made up the Athenian intelligentsia, and when they heard Paul preaching they challenge him and condescendingly whisper: “What is this babbler trying to say?” They consider him a simpleton, an embarrassment, or perhaps a philosophical amateur.

Paul’s audience was as arrogant as they were diverse. Luke’s confirms this in his parenthetical comment in verse 21.

(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

Thinking and debating ideas was their sport and the Areopagus their olympians. The Athenians fancied themselves wise and eloquent, thoughtful and learned. And this Paul, babbling about resurrection, was a chump.

While Paul had to travel all the way to Athens to find an audience like this, if you live in the western world, you are surrounded by it. We live in a world in which many are too clever for faith, who see religion as a crutch, and who believe pleasure is the point of life. Paul’s audience is our audience.

The message

But the audience is only the first part of this evangelism equation. The second is the message. What is it this audience needs to hear?

If we re-read verse 18 we can clearly see the message Paul brought with him:

And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (emphasis added).

Paul wasn’t discussing sexual ethics, politics, or general morality. He was proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After he’s brought to the Aereopagus, Paul takes the opportunity and launches into a sermon. We won’t unpack the whole message but, Paul uses their “unknown god” (vv. 22–23) to segue into a barrage of objective truth claims ranging from God’s uniqueness and sovereignty to his call for all to repent before his coming judgement (vv. 24–31).

Paul, faced with a diverse and arrogant audience, brings the only message he can. He doesn’t add to it, change it, or soften it.

The church today needs to take note of that commitment to the message. It is the height of arrogance, short-sightedness, and foolishness to change, truncate, or simplify the gospel for the sake of reaching lost people. And many are doing just that! We have been given a message to pass on. Like a waiter only serves the food and doesn’t change it, so we are to deliver the message without dropping it or spoiling it.

The response

The third part of the evangelism equation I want us to consider is the response. Taking any message to any audience is going to garner a response, and evangelism is no different.

Responses to Paul’s message were as diverse as his audience:

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them (vv. 32–34).

Some said, “That’s stupid.” Others said, “That’s intriguing.” Still others, “That’s reality.” Same audience, same message, multiple responses.

So it is with us. I’m confident that many of you reading this have experienced some of these same responses in your attempts to be witnesses. Rejection, curiosity, and, praise God, conversion.

The witness

That brings us to the fourth and final part of the equation: the witness. Someone must bring the message to the audience so they can respond. Enter the witness and, in Acts 17, that’s obviously Paul.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols (v. 16).

Paul, seeing a godless city, was angry. The word translated “provoked” is the word from which we get our english, paroxysm, i.e., a spasm or seizure. So, witnessing Athen’s idolatry made Paul shake with righteous rage. And that passion for people enslaved to sin propels him to proclaim the liberating message of the gospel unapologetically irregardless of their response. Nothing could dissuade him from being a witness.

Our equation is now complete. An audience plus a message plus a witness equals a response. But, did you notice that there is only one facet of that equation that we have any control over?

We can’t control our audience. We dare not change the message. We can’t control the response. But we can control the witness. And I don’t mean learning evangelistic strategies, mapping out ways to find unbelievers, or memorize passages of Scripture to give people. Those are all great, but I think there’s something more foundational. 

The simple reality is, we will not command to a world a God we don’t adore. We just won’t. We could hear sermons about evangelism every Sunday from now until Christ returns, but unless we’re excited about the message, motivated by our experience of God’s grace, enamoured with the truths of his Person, our troops will not be mobilized. We will not witness with any sort of consistency.

I didn’t need to be convinced to tell people when my wife agreed to marry me. It was good news! People share good news!

Paul didn’t confront the uppity Athenian thinkers out of some sense of obligation or competition. He did it because the gospel is good news that needs to be shared. He did it because it changed his life, because he had a personal relationship with his Saviour whom he loved, and because it broke his heart to see people who didn’t.

Evangelism is not rocket science. It’s a simple equation: An audience plus a message plus a witness equals a response.

Too often the church has been distracted by the elements of this equation that we can’t control or, at least, shouldn’t control. Instead, we must prayerfully consider the one facet we are called to be mindful of—ourselves. Do I love Christ enough to be burdened for those who are far from him?

And how do we grow in our love of him? Well, how does one grow in love for a friend, or child, or spouse? We spend time with them. We serve them. We talk with them. So it is with our God.

John Harper was a pastor in London, England in the late-1800’s. But he was also a well-known and passionate evangelist.*

In fact, he was such a zealous evangelist that the Moody Church in Chicago asked him to come over to America for a series of meetings. He did, and they went well. A few years later, Moody Church asked him if he would come back again. And so it was that Harper boarded a ship one day with a second-class ticket at Southhampton, England, for the voyage to America.

Harper’s wife had died just a few years before, and he had with him his only child, Nana, age six. What happened after this we know mainly from two sources. One is Nana, who died in 1986 at the age of eighty. She remembered being woken up by her father a few nights into their journey. It was about midnight, and he said that the ship they were on had struck an iceberg. Harper told Nana that another ship was just about there to rescue them, but, as a precaution, he was going to put her in a lifeboat with an older cousin, who had accompanied them. As for Harper, he would wait until the other ship arrived.

The rest of the story is a tragedy well known. Little Nana and her cousin were saved. But the ship they were on was the Titanic. The only way we know what happened to John Harper after is because, in a prayer meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, some months later, a young Scotsman stood up in tears and told the extraordinary story of how he was converted. He explained that he had been on the Titanic the nightie struck the iceberg. He had clung to a piece of floating debris in the freezing waters. “Suddenly,” he said, “a wave brought a man near, John Harper. He, too, was holding a piece of wreckage.

“He called out, ‘Man, are you saved?’

“‘No, I am not,’ I replied.

“He shouted back, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’

“The waves bore [Harper] away, but a little later, he was washed back beside me again. ‘Are you saved now?’ he called out.

“‘No,’ I answered. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’

“Then losing his hold on the wood, [Harper] sank. And there, alone in the night with two miles of water under me, I trusted Christ as my saviour. I am John Harper’s last convert.”

John Harper couldn’t control his audience. He didn’t change the message. And it wasn’t his job to create a specific response. But he was the type of witness that was so enamoured with his God and so affected by the grace of the gospel that his final words before meeting his Saviour was an invitation for someone else join him in God’s family.

May God grant us the grace to be witnesses like that.

*Taken from Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, pp. 13–15.