Some Personal Meditations on “The Heart of Evangelism”

Five or six years ago, when I began regularly volunteering in various recovery ministries sponsored by The Crossing, a number of things became immediately apparent: 1) I was completely inadequate to the task at hand; 2) my knowledge of the Bible was seriously lacking and 3) people were going to ask me hard questions whether I “permitted” them to or not – even after I had informed them of my exceedingly-obvious deficits. Most often, I would flat-out tell people that I was not a qualified counselor…and they would ask me to counsel them anyway! And this confounding cycle repeated itself endlessly. Clearly, I had to do something to bridge the impressive gap between what people needed and what I was able to confidently offer.

So when I began in 2009 to seriously consider the idea of entering Covenant Seminary, I had to face the fact that by that time I was in my late 40’s, I already had a fulltime job and had only recently remarried, creating a blended family of eight or nine (depending on “how you do the math”…it’s complicated). It also occurred to me that I had not sat in a classroom or taken notes on a lecture in well over 25 years. What was I thinking? Dutifully arranging a campus visit through the Admissions office, I took a day off work and headed over to St. Louis, thinking primarily that this trip was more about performing some due diligence – “Look, here’s why I can’t enroll…” – than anything else.

That day, I was treated to a private lunch meeting with Jerram Barrs, and enrolled in a master’s program within a week. (The Admissions people at Covenant really know what they are doing.)

To say that I greatly admire Jerram Barrs would be something of an understatement. It would be more accurate, I suppose, to say that I see in Prof. Barrs something of what I hope to attain to myself some day, by God’s grace: an unflinching predisposition to see in everyone something of the image of God, however marred and distorted it might be. A student of the late Francis Schaeffer, Barrs has the audacity to take the commands of Jesus quite literally, especially challenging words such as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-28) If you have never paused to seriously consider what it might look like for you and I to follow this example – and apply these difficult words of God to our own lives – then I would strongly advise you to pick up a copy of The Heart of Evangelism, written by Barrs.

Be warned, though, that Barrs is very much aware of what I will call the “approach-avoid” method common to many modern Christians as we seek to serve the purposes of Jesus in a broken and hostile world and yet also not “get in so deep” that our comfortable lifestyles are threatened somehow. In this method of evangelism, which Barrs calls “the Castle Wall approach,” we Christians put together a team of believers to scurry out into our “godless” environs, snatch a new convert or two, and return as fast as our legs will carry us to the comfort and safety of our deliberately-built and carefully-maintained “Christian ghettos.” In other words, we split God’s world into two distinct segments, namely “Us” and “Them.” It will likely surprise no one that Barrs finds this type of evangelism completely unacceptable.

Jesus came into the world “to seek and to save what was lost” – that is, you and me (Luke 19:10). He calls us to do the same. We all need to ask ourselves some challenging questions: “Who are our unbelieving friends? Who are the ‘sinners’ whom we give ourselves to love? Who are the ungodly who welcome us gladly and enjoy being with us?” There is no other way to be like Jesus and to be obedient to His command. (Page 148)

On the same page, Barrs relates an all-too-accurate remark once offered to him by an unbelieving friend: “The trouble with you Christians is that you wrap yourselves in a cocoon. All your close friends are other Christians. What about pagans like me? Who is going to reach me?”

I mentioned my private lunch with Barrs earlier simply to reinforce the point that I was more heavily “invested” in reading what his book had to say than I might have been otherwise. Having met the man in person, it subsequently became that much more difficult for me to be in any way “dismissive” of what he had to say; I knew that he was extremely earnest about evangelism and the ways in which the Christian church has historically failed to fulfill the Great Commission given to her by Jesus at the end of Matthew 28. Had I not interacted with him informally prior to picking up his book, I can confidently say that I would have been strongly tempted to highlight various passages as “unrealistic” and/or “not relevant to 21st century evangelism.” But of course, unjustly applying these labels to what Barrs has to say is merely my own sinful attempt to wriggle free from some of the more serious issues that he brings to light.

My more “emotional” response to this book was to inwardly excuse and explain away my own failings at being obedient to Christ, primarily in the realm of offering love and hospitality to everyone – “Really…everyone?” – that the Lord puts within my sphere of influence. Just like some of the characters presented by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), I greatly prefer to look for reasons why this or that particular person is someone who lives squarely outside my ability to influence and/or win to Christ and why it’s “probably OK” for me to pass by on the other side of the road, as it were.

As I consider the various ways in which my heart is hard-wired to move through life with a Castle Wall/siege mentality, I could condemn myself on multiple counts. Life in a Christian ghetto seems to be my default mode of operation. My five-year-old is scheduled to start Kindergarten at a private Christian school in August. These days, I have very few close non-Christian friends. To my dismay, I find upon examination that I do not spend much time at all talking to the various people who live in my neighborhood. Columbia, since it is a college town, has a lot of people floating in and out of its environs all the time. Many people move to Columbia for the express purpose of moving away within a few years. So it’s easy, given such a context, to allow oneself to think that “it may not really be worth it” to invest time in people who move around so much. While his writing and spoken lectures are filled with grace and understanding, Barrs has nevertheless done an excellent job of casting a harsh light on assumptions such as these as he pointedly compares contemporary isolationist attitudes to the three-year ministry of Christ and the “Mission to the Gentiles” as carried out by the Apostle Paul.

I say all this simply because my own awareness of missions – both foreign and domestic – has risen sharply over the past years as The Crossing has very intentionally put time, effort and resources toward people who are “different from us” and – key point – not at all “likely” to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. As a member of the church congregation, I have packed my wife and no fewer than four of our kids off on summer mission trips to Harmons, Jamaica; the photos that came back from that trip have done much to make me think twice before complaining that the line at the McDonald’s drive-thru is taking too long (among other things). In addition, our church has been consistently ministering to the poorer people in our community, gotten involved with sponsoring local film festivals that are coordinated by people who – for the most part – are not Christian believers, and sponsored ministry efforts in Guatemala, the Czech Republic, Kenya, Japan, etc. etc. etc.

How is it, then, that my local church can send people to the opposite side of the globe, and yet I often find it so “difficult” somehow to walk a plate of cookies across the street to someone who just moved in, or even just begin a casual conversation with a co-worker? In His great mercy, God has been “showing me” this contradiction for some time now, and not just since I started studying under Prof. Barrs this semester. The difficult truth is that I think our generation – and I very much include myself in this equation – is likely to be judged to have had as much fear-based resistance to evangelizing as the first-century church, most of whom, to fulfill Jesus’ commission, had to be forcefully scattered out of Jerusalem with the outbreak of persecution (Acts 8:1).

This has certainly been the net effect of reading Prof. Barrs’ book; to completely disabuse me of the notion that I’m doing all I can to accomplish the Lord’s work. We should be opening up our homes, our hearts and our wallets more and more, sacrificing time and anything else it takes to bring people to Christ…and by and large, we’re just not. It seems as though the Internet and “social media” – great irony! – have only served to cause us to hunker down even more, content to interact with others, especially those we might be fearful of, at a safe distance. I don’t pretend to offer a solution to this “castle wall” phenomena apart from prayer; heck, I barely know how to bring my own heart around to a deeper commitment to seeking and selflessly serving the lost.

Jerram Barrs has made one thing painfully clear to me. When we decide that someone is not “worthy” of our evangelistic efforts, we are in effect despising God’s creation. Realistically, who would have happily taken time to evangelize someone like me 20 years ago? Who would have gladly spent time with me…without thinking they were probably wasting it? And yet, here I am, sitting in the second row during The Crossing’s third service each and every week, worshipping God and soaking in His Word, faithfully preached. So how is it that with the steady advance of time I now find myself struggling to reach out to those who don’t yet accept the gospel…when I too was “one of them” not all that long ago? My prayer is that we will all figure this one out together…before God has to scatter us by force, too.

Matthew 28:16-20 (ESV)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Acts 1:6-8 (ESV)
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Leave a Reply