The Illusion of the Evangelical

It took me years. Years of ignorance and mistakes. My first lesson in financial management was the day I left for college (one day in January 1975). My parents drove me the 3 hours from Salisbury, NC to Raleigh. (Go Wolfpack). On the way out of town, they stopped at the bank. They opened a checking account in my name. And a credit card account. Three hours later, I began managing my own finances.


We didn’t have much when I was growing up. I remember the four kids getting an allowance when I was very young – one penny for every year we were old. I got a whole nickel when I was five. Allowances stopped before I turned ten. Working to earn money was normal. I carried a newspaper route. I did a little babysitting. Yard work. My senior year of high school, my dad helped me get a summer job with a man he knew… pumping septic tanks. But every dime I earned I was able to spend on whatever I wanted. I didn’t have a piggy bank. Or a savings account. Or any idea that I should.

The concept of saving was foreign to me. Earn enough to deal with everything on the list. Rent? Check. Food? Check.  Car repair? Credit card.  Credit card payment? Check. Check. Check.

Somewhere between 10 years old and pumping septic tanks I must have at least heard about the concept of personal savings, but it must not have registered as anything important for me. I had no problem with other people saving. But I only ever had enough money for things I wanted, and a credit card for the things I needed. I did not hear about saving from my parents. And the only thing online in those days were clothes out to dry.

… just because you have your money in an institution that makes savings accounts available, does not mean that you are a saver.

Today, I do save. I understand the long-term implications of that practice, and I am approaching the other side of that long-term timeline. However, I’m afraid that too many who should be savers are not. They are checkers like I used to be. I’m also afraid that too many savers don’t pass on the need, practice, skill, and strategy to those who should be savers.

Back in Time: How I Became a Saver (After I Became an Evangelical)

Jesus invaded my life at Ft. Jackson, SC during boot camp in the summer of 1974. I was on my knees, not because there is something holy in that posture, but because I was so desperate that I could not stand. Though I had been in church (non-evangelical protestant) for years, I had never – never – actually prayed. I was on my knees crying out to God for help – and he invaded me – I felt Him enter my life, and everything changed. But not immediately.

Because my saving occurred without anyone explaining the 4 Spiritual Laws or scaring me with the threat of a fiery hell, I didn’t know that God’s plan for believers includes personal evangelism. I went through college (in an evangelical church), thinking that what I should focus on was getting college students from other churches to come to my church. God called me to ministry while in that church, and I started seminary in 1982 without ever having told anyone how Jesus could change their life.

In 1983, my friend, John White, asked me to be his prayer partner for 13 weeks while he learned how to share the gospel through a program at our church. In seminary, you can’t say “no” to a request like that, but the very thing he was studying was something foreign to me. Uncomfortable. A bit anxiety producing.

Fast forward 13 weeks. Sunday night “graduation service”. Dozens of people had learned how to personally share the gospel*. I was sitting on the back row of the church. Uncomfortable. Anxious. And the God that had invaded my life in South Carolina broke my heart that night in Texas – my proud, hard heart. How could I so enjoy His salvation and not tell others? In tears I begged Him to make me into a “saver”.

Two weeks later I was leading a mid-week youth Bible study for a friend of mine. I didn’t know any of these students. After the study, we were all hanging out outside. I was talking to this one kid – and he said to me something like, “I need to be saved. Can you help me?”

Uncomfortable. Anxious. I realized in that moment, even with all the Bible I thought I knew, I had no concise way to explain the Gospel to him. With a prayerful mind heavenward, and eyes on the kid, I just started with what I knew. I answered his questions. God answered my prayer. I became a saver that night. And the kid became a believer.

Back to Today

There was a time when someone was considered to be an “evangelical” when they were personally involved in evangelism – the sharing of the good news – the saving work of the church. It no longer means that to those without Christ. Unfortunately, it also no longer means that to most of the folks who call themselves evangelicals. Today, it is not uncommon for those outside of the church to have “politics” as a first thought, when they hear the word “evangelical”. Today, for those inside the church, all that need be true for one to be considered an evangelical is to belong to a church that is identified, by virtue of its brand, as an evangelical church. It is no wonder that those outside the church had to discover for themselves how to define an evangelical, because most evangelicals aren’t. Most evangelicals on your block aren’t. Most evangelicals in your town or city, aren’t. Most evangelicals in the church… aren’t.

You see, just because you have your money in an institution that makes savings accounts available, does not mean that you are a saver. It is silly to call yourself a saver if you are only a checker. To announce to the world (either implicitly or explicitly) that you are a saver when you are not is an exercise in deception – of self, others, or both. Hanging out weekly with savers, learning their lingo, using their lexicon, nodding your head, and saying “Amen” in all the right places help shroud the checker in a false cloak of saving. And as the balance of members between checker and saver shifts ever more toward checker, saving can become a lost, uncomfortable, anxiety producing exercise.

Evangelical checkers (false savers?) think our country is in trouble because of the political climate. Too many evangelical checkers have rested on the size of our constituency to shape the direction of our country. Too many evangelical checkers think they are already humble, and that if only those outside the church would seek God’s face and turn from their wicked ways, He would heal our land. Sorry. That’s not how it works. That’s not what a Saver is called to. That is not what the passage means. I have to ask, how in the world can you imagine that a humble, contrite, repentant seeking of His face and turning from wicked ways will not result in turning toward the ways He has always prescribed? “Go ye therefore” has always been about personal evangelism. Someone saved, sharing the saving message with one not saved.

If we were to truly humble ourselves and seek His face, can you not see that this would result in more savers coming out of the doors of the church instead of staying inside the church, checking things off of their list?

Certainly, somewhere between 10 years old and today, members of evangelical churches must have heard about the concept of personal evangelism (personal saving), but it must not have registered as anything important for them. Churches budget for the things that they want. But look at your church’s budget for the money that goes toward training and empowering that saving work. If you are counting on the preacher to do the work, and he does, they you are a checker in an institution that has one saver. If you do and he does not, there may very well be no savers in your church at all. Churches where spiritual parents pass on the need and practice of saving to their spiritual children understand the long-term implications of everyone being involved in the personal practice of saving.

You can find out for yourself about your own church. Ask as many people as you can 2 simple questions:

  • What drew you to this church?
  • What do you like best about this church?

Keep notes in two columns or two lists.

Items on the saver list would include things like:

  • I met Christ here.
  • People are coming to Christ here on a regular basis
  • I learned out to share my faith here.

Items on the checker side include things like this:

  • Strong Biblical Teaching
  • Great youth ministry
  • Great children’s ministry
  • Great worship
  • This place is so friendly

While it may be rare for a saver church to be so without many of the items in the checker list, it is not at all rare for a checker church to have every item from their own list, and none from the saver list.

Humble yourself. Pray, and seek His face. Turn from your wicked ways. Become a Saver.


*Note: Dozens of people had learned how to personally share the gospel.

While it is true that many were saved in their very active learning process, they became savers because they shared the gospel, not because others were saved. It is up to us to share. It is up to Him to save.

Leading In to the Walls

You cannot lead anyone further than you’ve already been. And if you want to lead someone well, you need to travel that road a while. Travel that road often.

My Bachelor’s Degree is in Math Education. With that degree, I was able to teach all levels of high school math in an era before calculus was standard fare. I taught Algebra, Geometry, and Computer Science (this, before the first PC was sold in the US.)

To get that degree, I had to take Number Theory (where we spent time in base 2 and base 7 instead of base 10). I had to take four semesters of calculus. The only reason I didn’t fail that last semester is the prof chose to not fail me. There were two take home exams that semester. We were given a week to accomplish each. I attempted to answer all 7 of the questions on the mid-term and passed that one. I don’t remember the specific details of the final, but it was only 2 questions. The first question left me staring into space, wondering what in the world I was supposed to have studied for the 4 prior months. I never got to the second question. The first question went something like this:

In a cage you have a male and female bunny. Under normal conditions, bunnies reproduce 5 time per year with 4 kits per litter. In the water supply for the rabbits, you introduce a small ratio of alcohol, that ratio increasing by a certain amount over time. Alcohol serves to impede the reproductive rate of bunnies at a certain rate by volume over time. Assume that the litters, over time, average out to have the same number of males and females. Bunnies are able to reproduce beginning at 8 months old. Based on these conditions…

How many bunnies would you have after 24 months?

Not only did I have no words, I had no math. Not for bunnies anyway.

But what the number theory and calculus courses did do for me was take me a long way down that math road. Past potholes, pitfalls, and precipice. I could teach Geometry and Algebra in my sleep because of the depth of training I received.

You certainly can choose to journey together down a new road, but you can’t lead anyone. You’ve not yet seen the potholes or precipice. You’ve not experienced the detours and difficulties. And you’ve never found the amazingly powerful truths the exist beyond the pitfalls that cause most to turn back. Leading someone requires experience. Often, enough experience to fail and succeed.

If you agree with this, then let’s consider one implication.

Evangelism is Dead
I grow weary of hearing the erroneous conclusion of oft-cited “survey” that tells us the difficulty in reaching people for Christ. “If we don’t reach them by a certain age”, the report goes, “then the chances of reaching them grow dim.”

The tipping point age used to be 18, then 16. Now, according to some, it is 12. If we don’t reach them by the age of 12, then our chances of reaching them diminished significantly.

And in every church that I’ve heard this quoted, it is used to promote the idea that we need to invest more in our children’s ministry and preteen ministry. After all if we don’t reach them in those ministries, they won’t be reached. And in many churches, this translates to reaching them before the age of accaountability. Reaching them before they comprehend their need. Reaching them before they can possibly understand the verses we’ve had them memorize or the prayer we led them to pray.

So you don’t miss a serious implication, let’s agree that “reached” does not mean attendance or presence or participation. “Reached” in this context refers to one giving their life Christ. So then, the serious implication is that in so many cases, the children may have gone through the motions, but they are not “reached”. We have effectively applied spiritual millstones around their necks.

The warning raised by the stat caused us to Lead In to the Walls – to turn inward to those who were already among us or will find us under their own steam – inside our walls. The real solution would be to Lead Out in to the Wild – creating effective ministries that turn outward – where the real need is.

How did we get here?
We got here because you can’t take anyone further than we’ve already gone. Our churches are filled today with people that made their salvation decision for Christ inside the walls of the church. The number of believers that are passionate about evangelism that actually practice evangelism in the wild seems to have diminished faster than the reachable age.

So, to paraphrase how this oft-cited quote is misunderstood, “If we don’t reach the children for Christ that are already in our walls or will come inside our walls by their own effort before they turn 12, we may not ever reach them”.

A corollary to this is something like:

“What we’re doing doesn’t work for those in the wild, even though it is supposed to. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and just blame the difficulty on the lost people – they’re just harder to reach.”

That oft-cited quote should have raised alarm bells to develop evangelism efforts in the wild. We should have created opportunities that took advantage of the system that would have us removed from schools and the public square. We didn’t do that because you can’t take anyone further than you’ve been. And our churches are lacking critical mass in people who met Christ in the wild, to help move the church out to the wild.

I don’t have any stats, but in the last six churches that I’ve been a member of, only two of the pastors practiced and talked about experiential evangelism in the wild – reaching the lost where they live, work and play.

Unfortunately, neither of those two ever trained anyone while we were there – they never took anyone with them to learn this increasingly rare behavior. In both cases, the church members were always glad and excited that people got saved. Just never glad and excited enough to demand that their pastor train them in a hands on, experiential way. But to be clear, I know for a fact that these pastors were challenged to take members out and train them. They just didn’t.

Of greater misfortune, three of the remaining pastors did not practice evangelism in the wild. They were glad when people got saved in their church, but they had no stories to tell, no effort to share of them reaching people where they live, work, and play.

And of greatest misfortune, one of those pastors admitted to me that they had never led anyone to Christ in a one-on-one conversation. Certainly people had responded to a Gospel presentation before, but no experience with personal evangelism.

Sadly, in all six churches, from the tepid challenge to “tell your story” to a strong admonition to share the gospel, not one of these churches leveraged their God-given resources to build a church-based evangelism effort. They limited there challenge to the individual. “You. You go. You go to your friends and family.” And even one of them actually said, “And we (the staff) will be here if you need anything.” (See “The Problem With My Neighbors” to understand why this has never worked broadly in the US.)

Let that sink in.

The reason that students and young adults are harder to reach has little to do with their social, emotional, or educational development. It has everything to do with these facts:

  1. We think disciple making is the activity of improving the spiritual state of saved people.
  2. We think the process of disciple making is best done by telling believers what to think instead of training them how to think.

If we think disciple making is fundamentally about working with saved people, then we make evangelism optional. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20), then, does not include it. Therefore:

  • it is not required by Jesus (not to mention)
  • uncomfortable for us (and finally, after all)
  • it is the pastor’s job

We therefore don’t need to be concerned about it other than to be happy when it accidentally happens.

You can’t lead anyone where you’ve never been. So we have effectively killed evangelism. That is why it is harder to reach people over the age of 12. Not because they are hard to reach, but because we’ve stopped doing the hard work of reaching others in the wild.

If you’ve never been trained, go to your pastor and demand it. Demand that he connect you with an evangelistic mentor for the express purpose of learning how to share the gospel in a hands-on, experiential way.

Now I know for a fact that you’ve been challenged, too.