After the parable of the soils in Mark 4 Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how’ (Mark 4:26–27).
For the purposes of this article, it may be helpful to think of evangelism in two phases. Phase 1 is the primary sowing at mission events (v. 26). Phase 2 is the follow-up when we are waiting to see how the soil of human hearts will respond to the seed of the Word sown (v. 27).
1. Things we can’t know
Primary and follow-up evangelism can’t be approached mechanically. There aren’t certain inputs that guarantee desirable outputs. An Australian evangelist of a former generation advertised his services in a magazine and boasted ‘results guaranteed!’ – bizarre! The seed is the Lord’s and so is the soil, the harvest and the eternal wisdom behind His plan of salvation.
This is not a proof text for the neglect of follow-up work. But it should leave us humbled; completely dependent on the Lord to do what only He can.
Yet, while we are utterly reliant on the Lord, that does not make us entirely redundant…
2. Things we can do
If anything, verse 27 should drive our commitment to follow up well. Give yourself wholeheartedly to everyone who shows any interest! Don’t mentally write people off as unpromising. We don’t know what the Lord might accomplish from even the least promising situation or circumstance. We don’t know how or where the seed will sprout and grow.
It’s tempting to put all our energy into phase 1 evangelism and imagine that there will be plenty of time to think about follow-up later. Equally it can be just as tempting to think that follow-up can take place as a kind of on-demand service, where we just do it as required, on a wave of enthusiasm with little forethought.
In reality it’s much more likely that we’ll be exhausted by the time we get to that point and exhaustion is not the ideal frame of mind in which to be thinking about how to care well for someone on the point of trusting Christ. So, how ought we to think about phase 2?
Paul described his work in Colossians 1 in the following way:
‘Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me’ (Colossians 1:28–29).
Part of Paul’s toil and struggle for the Colossians was in his unceasing prayers for their spiritual maturity. The fact that we know not how the seed sprouts and grows drives us to the work of praying to the Lord of the harvest. If we get this wrong we’ll either become proud if it goes well, or discouraged if it doesn’t.
Let’s pray that in both our primary and follow-up evangelism the Lord will do what only He can do, while enabling us to do our part. And when we get to the follow-up phase we will know that it’s not about us ‘getting decisions’ or ‘closing the deal’, but prayerfully continuing to proclaim Christ and waiting to see what the Lord will do.
In terms of planning, the last should be first. We should prepare phase 2 as we shape phase 1. Starting with the follow-up will help develop our approach to our primary evangelism and enable us to effectively plan how we will build bridges to the communities that are on our hearts. Then the mission team can helpfully outline a range of ‘next steps’ that are already thought through.
It may help to think in terms of pathways. What about the man or woman who comes to the mission and seems interested – who would be best suited to chat to them and arrange a coffee? Is there a relevant church group (walking, sewing, sports, reading, etc.) you could offer to take them along to and introduce them to others? If the person has children, are there children’s activities that would be good to draw them into? If they have elderly family members to care for, is there a lunch club to invite them to?
Why not learn from the students and plan a ‘Grill the Christian’ event where those showing interest can be heard and connected with?
Could you offer lunch after the Sunday morning meetings for a month after the mission, and invite friends to come for lunch with you, even if they haven’t yet attended the church meeting?
Do you have a bookstall with some specially chosen titles that might help to overcome defeater-views in a person’s mind?
Have you trained the church in resources like The Word One to One or Christianity Explored, so that, as friendships grow, there are pathways to help the person to hear more about the Lord Jesus?
Of course, it’s vital that we think about pathways as means of genuinely welcoming outsiders (not just as a way to plug them into our existing structures!) and we must work out helpful next stages for people from the various groups we may plan to engage, and aim to bring them more meaningfully into the church community.
The aim of follow-up is to see the gospel fully known and people fully matured and integrated into church family life. So…
The whole church family – large or small – needs to be convinced that, like evangelism, following people up is everyone’s responsibility. If the church culture is already open and warm – if people put themselves out to welcome, engage, love and serve newcomers – then that church is in better shape to prayerfully think through routes into gospel growth for the people who are impacted by primary evangelism.
At the sharp end of follow-up are those who are ready to make the initial contact and establish a genuine friendship with the person being followed up. We want to gently get to know them, their story, their experience, their mind-set and open our lives to them too. We want to help them see that they can trust us as a loving friend who is a little further down the road, still trusting the Lord Jesus and learning from Him.
Above all else, we proclaim the Lord Jesus from His Word. And we show them what it looks like to honestly and practically apply the gospel in our own lives – how we handle temptation, how we deal with our sin, how we hear from the Lord and speak to Him, why we value His Spirit and His Word and His church.
Our proclamation must be by life as well as lip. We need to serve them for Jesus’ sake by making ourselves available to them, showing great patience and love and offering other practical help we might be able to give in their situation.
Richard Bewes used to ask, ‘Who is the most attentive at follow-up in Mark 4?’ Answer – the devil! It’s because he knows that there’s power in that gospel seed. It is therefore worth giving our heart and soul to doing follow-up well.
Phase 1 is like dressing the shop window – showing the beauty and power of the Lord Jesus and His gospel. Phase 2 is when the person walks into the shop. We want them to sense the presence and hear the voice of that same Lord Jesus in our lives by our interaction with them, and for them to feel that they’ve come home. So, let’s not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Finally, prepare by buying and reading evangelistic books — that way when you give them, you can tell those you’re giving them too why you liked it. Have books on your desk at work, by your front door, in your car or bag, so you’re ready to give them. It’s always worth having a range of resources — tracts, booklets, more visual things, longer books. Remember, not everyone will consume information in the same way that you do.
Once you’ve given the book, follow up 2–3 weeks after and ask if they’ve started reading it. Ask them if they found anything surprising or if they disagreed with anything.
Suggested resources for evangelism preparation:
John Lennox, Have no Fear
Roger Carswell, Evangelistic Living
Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism
Rebecca Manley Pippert, Stay Salt
Suggested resources to give away:
Colin Smith, Heaven How I Got Here
Roger Carswell, Grill a Christian
DJ Carswell, A Passion for Life
Paul Williams, If you could Ask God One Question
Michael Ots, Making Sense of Life
John Eddison, Newness of Life
The Word One to One
Two Ways to Live