We had our plenary church prayer meeting this last Tuesday. As usual, we split our time between our mission partners and the various ministries of the our own church. As I was compiling the list of ministries we were going to be praying about, it felt a lot longer than I imagined it. Here was the list (minus the specific prayer points):
- Weekly preaching
- Sunday School
- Community Groups
- English Class
- Book Table
- Dialogue Evening
- Open Air
- Men’s Breakfast
- Women’s Prayer & Share
- Women’s seeker Bible study
- Discipleship reading
If I was to classify that list, I’d probably split it into two: evangelistic ministries and discipleship ministries. But within those two categories, there would be a fair degree of breadth to what we do.
For example, the open air and book table would be your classic ‘cold contact’ evangelism. We go into the town centre, attempt to engage people we don’t know who have no link to the church, and share the gospel with them in a clear and direct way. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the football. There, we have no specific evangelistic input and everybody who comes has some link with us through other things. They are either regular at church or are frequent attendees at other ministry things going on.
In between those two things, sit all the other evangelistic works. At the football end of the spectrum, but a little to its left, is the English Classes. These are mainly just teaching English. But we do use Bible text as our reading material, we do try to share something of the gospel at points and we do have a break in the middle where we try to engage in conversation. But this is very much a relationship building exercise in which we hope, over time, we will either get opportunities in the class to speak of Christ or else feed people into other things going on where the gospel message is much more front and centre.
At the other end of the spectrum, but slightly to the right of the open air and book table, sit the Dialogue Evening and women’s seeker Bible study. These are ‘warm contact’ things with unbelievers. The gospel message is proclaimed clearly and fulsomely every time in these settings. But we know the people who come, we are engaging with them regularly and, again, whilst sharing the gospel there is a definite relational aspect to what we are doing that doesn’t exist in the same way at the open air or book table.
Other things sit somewhere on that spectrum too. The Sunday School, for example, is mainly teaching unbelieving children. But these are either children of believers or very warm seekers who are with us frequently. Our community groups and preaching are principally aimed at believers but obviously there is space for unbelievers to come and engage with what we are doing together. This would be true of most of our discipleship stuff. It’s all largely aimed at believers but there is often an understanding than unbelievers may be in the room.
Now, if you speak to some people, they would advocate for only the cold contract evangelistic stuff. Others would shun that altogether and would only do very warm stuff. Some only like discipleship in whole church settings while others prefer one to one settings or special interest groups. And to most of that I want to say, yes.
At the end of the day, there are some people who will be shaken to the core and ask, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ when confronted directly with the gospel and their standing before the Lord in the middle of a town centre. But we’re foolish if we think that is everybody. There are people who are won over to the gospel through the regular, plodding witness of people serving them, showing the love of Christ and taking opportunities as they arise to speak of Jesus. Then there are those who have no interest whatsoever, but are happy to come and play football with some Christian lads. And as they get to know us playing football, they are happy to maybe accept an invite to something else, which leads to other things before they might give the gospel a real hearing. And I want to say that all those things have a place. It is a case of horses for courses.
I am a firm believer in having as many different avenues to hearing the gospel, and a similar number of avenues for discipleship, as you can get. What works for some won’t work for others. Some may even make contact through one thing and end up cross-pollinating into other things. Given that people are different, and most will be attracted and repelled by different things, the more approaches and opportunities you have to engage with the gospel the better.
To those who only want to play sport, I will play sport. To those who want to debate our respective faiths, I will debate. To those who want to be friends, I will be a friend. To those who want a clear and frank statement of the gospel, I will be clear and frank. To those who want to learn English, I will teach English. To those who want to engage with normal churchy things, I will welcome them into our usual churchy things. To those who want something to read, I will find them something to read. I, frankly, couldn’t care less about the thing itself (so long as it isn’t inherently sinful). I will do all of these things if it gives me clear opportunities for the gospel or there are ways and means of using the thing to help people encounter Christ.
I have no interest in running mercy ministries for the sake of it. I am very loath to do any ‘service provision’ that is likely to lead to the service overtaking all else. But if we can provide services where we stick the Bible in front of people and can talk about it, I’m in. If we can do things for people that will lead them to engaging with the gospel, I’ll do that. In all these things, I want as many ways and means for people to encounter the gospel as we can muster. And by all these means, I pray that the Lord might use them to save some.
We’ve got to take seriously the reality that not everybody is the same. Not everybody is going to become a believer because they heard an open air, but some will. Not everybody will be inclined to the gospel because they were given a tin of beans and a listening ear at a food bank, but some will. Not everybody will want to do a 7-week course, but some will. And we do well to find and do as many of the things to which some will respond as we can so that we are helping the widest number of people encounter the gospel in away that will incline them to repent of their sin and trust in Christ.
Of course, at some point, that means you actually have to share the gospel. You can’t just dole out tins of beans or kick some leather round a field and expect people to become believers by osmosis. You have to have actual gospel content conveyed to them some time. They have to hear about sin, its solution in Christ and the implications of all that. But presuming you are sold on the need for actual gospel content (rather than the ‘words if necessary’ nonsense pressed by some), we need as many different ways and means – soft and hard, cold and warm – as we can possibly muster to give the widest possible range of people the best chance of responding to Christ.