In the first of a two-part special, Bob writes about the need to preach for a response. His second article will appear in the next edition of Ignite and this will focus on the do’s and don’ts and the practicalities of making evangelistic appeals.
“If we aim at nothing…”
I suspect that most of us are familiar with the dictum that, ‘If we aim at nothing, we will be sure to hit it.’ All preaching, not least evangelistic preaching, should have a goal – the preacher should, as John Wesley expressed it, “take aim”.
G. Campbell Morgan began preaching at the age of 13! He travelled extensively around the UK and the USA evangelising and teaching. As Pastor of Westminster Chapel, he introduced the young Martyn Lloyd Jones to that congregation. Morgan’s comment about purposeful preaching (preaching for a decision) is pertinent and insightful. He wrote, ‘There is a sense in which preaching is a conflict with our hearers. The preacher is not (merely) asking the congregation to discuss a situation, consider a proposition or give attention to a theory. He is, whether evangelising or teaching, out to storm the citadel of the will and capture it for Christ.’
An old habit
After over 40 years of preaching, I still write at the top of each sermon’s notes my aim in preaching that particular message. The act of physically writing or typing out my aim underlines and reinforces my sense of what I want to see happen as an outcome. That sense of purpose will have grown in me during time spent praying and preparing. The context and content of the passage will have ‘nudged’ me, or better yet driven me, to a sense of what God wants to do through the presentation and explanation of his Word on that particular occasion.
“Go away and think about this”
This phrase is what, in one way or another, many churches and preachers have become rather good at saying. Whether intentionally, or unwittingly we have developed in our churches a ‘culture of reflection’. Saying, in effect, to those who have heard the message, ‘That is what God says, now you go away and think about it.’ It is critically important, of course, that we encourage people to reflect on what they have been hearing. Making a commitment to follow Christ is inarguably the most significant decision a person can ever or will ever make!
What a person believes about Jesus will not only affect the quality and direction of their life in this world but will also determine the quality of their life in the next!
Plus, Jesus was very clear in his teaching about the foolishness of pressing people to make a premature and unconsidered commitment to himself. (Luke 14) However, we must not leave people with the impression that there is no urgency attached to the business of making up their minds. To do so is at best unhelpful and at worst, downright dangerous!
It can take a long time for the spiritual ‘penny to drop’. For me it was three years from when I first had the Christian faith carefully explained to me to the time when I actually did something about it! I was, although I didn’t realise it, in what I now think of as a ‘drip feed’ process. Just as in a hospital medication and nutrition is fed in small, almost imperceptible amounts into the vein of a patient who is unable to receive solid foods or drugs so, in the same way through my Christian friends and their testimonies, God ‘dripped’ into me little doses of truth. We must be aware of this process going on in the lives of our contacts and those who are perhaps, on the fringe of our churches.
Process should lead to crisis
Deliberation, reflection, discussion and debate are not though, an end in themselves. They are meant to lead to a decision. It’s possible, indeed I think it is certain, that we evangelicals have so bought into the truth that conversion is a process, and not just a crisis, that we have tended to forget about the need for a crisis at all. I’m sure that the statistics about how long on average, it takes for a person to be saved from when they first hear the Gospel are sound – incidentally the stats tell us it’s approximately three years, but we need to appreciate that whilst it may take that length of time or even longer, it certainly doesn’t have to in every case.
The ‘fields’ may be ‘whiter’ than we think!
If we are preaching to people who have been in the ‘drip feed’ process for some little while and for whom there has been focussed prayer, then we should be open to the possibility of calling on them to do something about what they have heard, and to do it sooner rather than later. If we do this, if we preach for and call for a response, we may well be surprised at just how ready to come to Christ our hearers are!
There’s no ‘one size fits all’
In any audience/ congregation there may well be people who genuinely require more time to weigh the issues of faith. Sitting alongside them however, will also be some who may have started out sincerely thinking about Christ but who are now, having heard the truth many times, really not requiring to know anything more so much as do something about what they know!
“We’re not seeing anyone converted”
This was a lament from an enthusiastic believer whose church has good and ongoing contact with a lot of unsaved people. These people readily attend, not just outreach events but some Sunday services as well. My friend was mystified as to why none of them ever made any faith response to the Gospel. I asked her, “Do you ask them to? Do you give them opportunity to respond?” “Not really” she replied. I said, “Ask them to. Invite them to receive Christ and give them an opportunity to do so.” The last time I saw her she was thrilled to report that some people had been happy and ready to respond.
It’s not difficult – it’s really not!
It’s really not difficult to preach pointedly and with urgency to a quite disparate congregation. It is a matter of saying as we preach that for some of our hearers more time and thought is genuinely needed and that we respect that position. But alongside that acknowledgement we must also say that for some of them it is probably time, possibly ‘high time’, that they made up their minds and did what deep down they know they should. Many people who have responded to the message have told me that they have secretly known for some time that they should turn to Christ, and that they have really just been waiting for someone to set out clearly what they must do and give them the opportunity to do it!
Helpful to some, off-putting to none
Done properly, that is with respect for people’s right to decide and in a gracious way; calling on people to make a decision can be helpful to some and should be off-putting to no reasonable person.
We are rightly concerned to draw people closer to a point of commitment rather than drive them away. I get that! Truly I do. I probably speak at more ‘entry level’ or ‘seed sowing’ events and services than most of the people reading this, and I get asked back a lot as well so I guess I must be pitching things at an appropriate level somehow! I recognise the need to sometimes ‘make haste slowly’ but I suspect that many of us are generally inclined to underestimate people’s readiness to hear and respond to the Gospel.
The Gospel is not really a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition!
If someone is upset, by being in a meeting at which people are urged to come to faith, that is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to them! Leaving them un-warned and unchallenged for weeks, months or years is far less loving and considerate than being courteous but candid with them about the need for a decision.
‘Drawing in the Net’
In the next article I will explain when and how to make an appeal i.e. call for a visible response. I will also consider how to prepare people and churches for an appeal and how to follow through with those who respond.
Bob Telford will be talking on this subject - ‘Preaching for a Response’ at the next Counties Training Day for church leaders, evangelists and supporters. The free event, including lunch, will take place at Solihull Gospel Hall, Solihull on Tuesday 16 May. For more details email firstname.lastname@example.org