When it comes to evangelism, I find it’s always interesting to ask how the men who have most impacted your life were won to Christ themselves. I had the privilege of being on staff at All Souls with John Stott for 17 years, and it was humbling to note that, as one got closer to him, he became more godly, not less. In terms of his coming to Christ, here’s a short paragraph from the first commentary I ever read and the first one he wrote. It’s 2 Timothy, and John comments on the spiritual friendship between Paul and the young Timothy; he compares that relationship to the one he experienced as a young Christian:
‘I thank God for the man who led me to Christ and for the extraordinary devotion with which he nurtured me in the early years of my Christian life. He wrote to me every week for, I think, seven years. He also prayed for me every day. I believe he still does. I can only begin to guess what I owe, under God, to such a faithful friend and pastor.’1
That paragraph opened my eyes to the critical importance of working with men on a one-to-one basis. I was so struck by it that I once showed it to Michael Green at a conference. He read it and said, with no little emotion in his voice: ‘The same man worked with me one-to-one.’
What is, of course, so striking is the wholehearted commitment and that’s our first principle in evangelism to men.
1. The model – a shared life
Though Paul spent only three weeks in Thessalonica, he was able to write this to the young Thessalonian Christians: ‘We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
My foundation block in relating to and working with an individual is carving out time to be with them regularly, so that we become genuine friends. I make sure that I take time to find out all about their home, hobbies, friends and pressures, so that I feel I know them. So often in our ‘Me First’ culture nobody else has bothered to show such interest.
I also speak about myself – which is easy! I want them to feel they know me, which means – whoever they are – that they will soon gain a working knowledge of rugby football!
As I seek to share life, I’m thinking about four steps:
(1) Celebrate the men that you meet by asking questions and enjoy getting to know someone who is infinitely valuable, since they are made in God’s image and Christ has died for them. I want to really enjoy the privilege of meeting a fellow human being.
(2) Serve them – what is their biggest stress? How can I help with the pressures they have? This is an opportunity for random acts of kindness, not least in giving them time. As a pastor I’m not naturally with non-Christians, so I’m part of a chess club at my son’s school. It meets at 8am on a Thursday morning and it’s a chance to serve other parents and the kids, as well as a regular opportunity to be with non-Christians, and know that I’m going to keep building relationships by being there.
(3) Cross the pain-line by asking a question. As I write, it’s October and I’m praying about saying to the men that have kids at the chess club: Do you celebrate Christmas? Would you like to come along to a carol service? It’s always good to have a question that is the next step for an individual. One of the men who comes has identified himself as a lapsed Catholic, but he is sympathetic, and I have a little New Testament I’m going to give him and I’m going to ask if he’ll go through John’s Gospel with me using The Word One to One.
(4) Exit – Matthew 10:14 says, ‘If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.’ If, as you ask the question about spiritual things, they go quiet, then don’t feel you have to keep talking about it. Keep celebrating and serving.
2. Our confidence – the sovereign Lord
But how do we begin that relationship? What’s the starting point? I find it a great encouragement to remind myself that God is the evangelist and he has organised my life and indeed the life of everyone around me, in order that people get the opportunity to meet Jesus. This is clear in Acts 17:24–28:
‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”’
Can you see that God is the Creator of the world in verse 24: he ‘made the world and everything in it’? Secondly he’s the Sustainer of the world in verse 25: ‘he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else’. And thirdly, he is the Ruler of the world in verse 26: ‘he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands’.
Now as Creator, Sustainer and Ruler, what is God’s aim for the world? It is that people should meet his Son, verse 27: ‘God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him’.
This means that every time I bump into a different man and find them in my life, I know that it’s a divine appointment that we have met.
3. The power – the word alive
As I hope to invite these friends along to a carol service or open the Bible with them individually, the key is to have total confidence in the Bible to do its work in their life, as it has done its work in mine, and did its work in John Stott’s. It’s no dead letter, but living and active, a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). It will, says the Lord in Isaiah 55:11, ‘not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’.
As we run Christianity Explored at All Souls we’re trying to help those who come on the course to experience hearing the Bible at four levels – so they get talks from the front, they discuss it in a small group, they chat about it individually with their leaders and they read it for themselves at home. We’re really trying to cultivate this amazing sense of Jesus walking off the pages of the Bible and revealing himself to be our Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for our sin.
4. The key – grace
As I’m working with men, I’m longing that they can see their sin, in order that they grasp the wonder of God’s grace. I hope that they’ll see their sin, as I meet them one-to-one and speak of my own sin. It was Jack Miller, the man who mentored Tim Keller, who said this:
‘If the pastor is not the chief repenter, then sin becomes a theoretical issue for theoretical sinners, should there be any present in church that Sunday.’
My motto for personal work comes from Paul in Romans 7:19, ‘For I don’t do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.’ I find my own sin overwhelming, but that makes the grace of God even more wonderful.
I love the words of Bishop Alf Stanway, preaching to some ordinands in Pittsburgh in the 1950s:
‘If other people knew you like God knows you: all your faults, all your vain thoughts, all your sins, all the things in your heart, all the wrong thoughts you ever had, would they trust you with the kind of work God trusts you with? Here is the supreme confidence that God has in his own grace. He’ll take the likes of you and me and give us the privilege of being his saints.’
And so, there is a golden chain that I’m trying to establish in their lives: sin, grace, joy, discipleship. It’s grace that transforms the Christian life from duty to joy, and counterintuitively, the only way up is down. As I see my sin, grace becomes more and more wonderful and I find it’s grace that is the spiritual electricity that lights up a man’s life. So I’ll go to passage after passage on grace: Ephesians 2:1–10; Luke 15:11–32; Luke 18:9–14; Titus 2:11–14; Psalm 51; Psalm 103 – until they’re thrilled by it.
1John Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy (IVP, 2021), p. 29.