Our Finest Evangelistic Hour
by Randy Newman, Senior Teaching Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at The C. S. Lewis Institute
In a memorable scene from one of my favorite movies Apollo 13, two NASA officials contemplate the numerous potential horrors that may occur in the next few moments when the damaged spaceship re-enters the earth’s atmosphere.
In a hushed tone, one anxious man says to another, “What do we have here? We have the parachute situation, the heat shield, the angle of trajectory, and the typhoon. There are just so many variables. I’m a little at a loss…”
An equally distraught man interrupts him and says, “I know what the problems are, Henry. This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.”
Overhearing this exchange, Gene Kranz, the director of the mission chimes in, “With all due respect, sir. I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”
The miracles that wove together the safe return of the three astronauts show that Kranz, not the doubters, was right.
I wonder if evangelical Christians find themselves in a similar conundrum about the spread of the gospel in our antagonistic age. It would be easy to look at all the “problems” in our world and wonder if evangelism is pointless. With so many obstacles to overcome, we toy with the notion that this may be “the worst disaster” in the history of the church.
Will people really listen to a message that insists on being the “only way” in a time when tolerance, pluralism and diversity are hailed as unquestionable axioms? Will “nones” (people who identify with no religion at all) give us the time of day when we tell them they can know God personally? Can a religion that requires “dying to self” get any traction in a world that encourages people to choose their gender? Does the current political climate make respectful disagreement practically impossible?
We might be tempted to simply quote Psalm 11:3, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” or apply (I would say misapply) Jesus’ admonition to just “shake the dust off our feet” and run and hide. (Those words of our Lord, I believe, had limited application to a very specific task he was giving his disciples in a unique situation. I’d be very wary of reading our current setting into that passage).
Instead, we should entertain the notion that this might be, evangelistically speaking, our “finest hour.”
Even though my temperament and personality tilts toward the pessimistic side, I want to argue for the hopeful picture. I think our current age sets people up dramatically for disappointment, disenchantment, and wondering if there must be something more. Military tensions throughout the world set people up for a hunger for security they can’t find in their possessions, experiences, or political gains.
I spend a lot of my time interviewing recent converts, and I find their stories to be surprising, encouraging, and amazing. Their unlikely conversions remind me that nothing is too difficult for God and no one is beyond his saving reach. When I’m tempted to despair about the exaltation of sexual sin in our time, I remember Andrew1 who came to faith after more than a decade of being married to a man. When I grieve at the popularity of atheism, I recall to mind Erika who “just happened to” bring a Bible with her on vacation (with her atheist father and mother) and read it every day. She returned to her college campus soon after that and sought out Christians who could explain what she had read while traveling around Europe. When I am tempted to chicken out and not witness to people who seem confident in their unbelief and angry in their tone, I remember Lawrence who went to an evangelistic event simply to taunt the speaker and make fun of the Christians there. He’s now a leader in his church.
I’m not saying evangelism is easy or that we’ll never deal with fear. Telling lost people they need to turn from their sin has never been easy or popular. And if we think we must overcome fear before witnessing, we should meditate on Paul’s admission to the Corinthians that he reached out to them “with fear and much trembling” (I Cor. 2:3).
Here are three suggestions for starting the scary, difficult, unpopular, counter-cultural, politically insensitive, unlikely process of evangelism that, despite all odds, may break through in powerful, transformative, and saving ways.
First, we must develop the basic conversational skill of asking good questions. What just came to your mind when you read that last sentence? What happens when people ask you a question? Don’t you start the process of answering and engage your mind in exploratory ways? Did you see what I just did?
Second, we should aim for a gradual process of encouraging people to move incrementally toward faith rather than insisting on instant conversions in one short conversation. You may bristle at that thought but my research has shown me that the gradual process is the more likely path for many people’s coming to Jesus. Ask God to give you wisdom, creativity, sensitivity to his leading, and patient prayerfulness along the way.
Third, take some time to read about revivals. My favorite source is Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir.2 When you read how God has worked throughout history to convert lost people, plant and bless new churches, and transform entire societies, you’ll inoculate yourself against defeatism, discouragement, and evangelistic lockjaw.
I hope you’re sensing that I’m not promoting a Pollyanna-like “just keep smiling” mindset about evangelism in our hostile world. While we may see tremendous evangelistic fruit in the days ahead, those joyous moments will probably come through times of persecution and trial. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he told us that people will hate us because they love darkness. But when he commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations” he surrounded that Great Commission with the dual comforts of “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20).
1These are the same names I use to tell these stories at length in Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism (Kregel Publications, 2019).
2Published by Zondervan, 2010.
Randy Newman has served in campus ministry for over thirty years through Campus Crusade for Christ. He now teaches at several evangelical seminaries and ministers in a variety of churches. He is currently a Senior Teaching Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at The C. S. Lewis Institute in Washington, DC. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Temple University and a M.Div. and Ph.D. in intercultural studies from Trinity International University. He and his wife, Pam, live in Annandale, Va. They have three grown sons and one delightful daughter-in-law. Learn more at www.randydavidnewman.com.
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