20 February 2020

Sealing the deal. Or not.

Most of the evangelism seminars, classes, and books I’ve read, insist our every conversation with people about the gospel, has to end with a decision. They’ve heard the gospel, and either they believe it or they don’t; either they wanna follow Jesus or they don’t; so get an answer. Have ’em make a decision now. Right now! DO IT!

Which is why that’s what I’ve experienced whenever I’ve been on evangelism teams: The high-pressure tactics of proselytizers.

And a whole lot of cringing pagans, who don’t wanna make a decision right now. They gotta think about it! They need time to process. Really, they need time for the Holy Spirit to work on ’em—which is exactly what he’s gonna do. Heck, some of them might have already decided, “No thank you,” but of course the Spirit doesn’t like that answer, so he’s gonna get ’em to realize it was the wrong one, and convince ’em to change their minds. And that takes time. And patience.

Patience which the Spirit has in abundance. Evangelists, not so much.

Hence all our demands for an immediate decision: Let today be the day of your salvation! Don’t put it off till tomorrow; you never know what might happen in the meanwhile; you could die later this afternoon, and wind up in hell! You know, deep down, the gospel is true, and Jesus is the right choice, so quit waffling and choose Jesus! Don’t leave him hanging! Don’t be an ingrate; he died for you! Et cetera, ad nauseam.

Because the evangelists tell us it’s not a successful conversation unless it ends in conversion. And we as evangelists aren’t doing our job unless we seal the deal—to borrow a term from sales. They gotta decide right now: Jesus or hell. There’s no “Can I think about it and decide later?”—that’s just a decision for hell disguised as procrastination. It’s really Jesus or hell.

And if they choose Jesus, the angels will rejoice. Lk 15.10 And if hell, they’re doomed.

But because evangelists expect immediate decisions, whenever they actually bother to take statistics, they find their success rate is extremely low. Even anecdotally, they’ll figure maybe one in 20 will choose Jesus. The actual rate is much lower—and of those people who choose Jesus, about 90 percent of ’em don’t bother to start praying regularly, start reading bible, start going to church, start anything. They’ve not changed at all. Really, they have to be led to Jesus all over again.

So what are we doing wrong? Lots of things.

“The deal” doesn’t make anyone Christian.

This focus on getting people make a definite initial decision for Christ Jesus: Way too many of our efforts are placed on this. In some evangelism ministries, all of it is placed on this. They only want decisions for Jesus; they wanna rack up those numbers, and (according to popular Christian culture, ’cause people are thinking of medieval European crowns, not the leafy ones given at sporting events in New Testament times) get more jewels for the crowns Jesus is eventually gonna give us. Rv 2.10

The rate of recidivism—the vast number of “decisions” which decay into nothing—indicates people don’t really believe the sinner’s prayer when they say it. So why’re they saying it?

  • Heat of emotion. But once the emotions pass, so does their interest in Jesus.
  • False gospel: The evangelist, so desperate to seal the deal, promised ’em outrageous things about Jesus which aren’t so. The would-be convert either comes to realize all these false promises are bunk; or tries them out (“I asked Jesus for a million dollars, but I haven’t seen a dime yet!”), finds them false, and figures the whole of Christianity must be false too.
  • Peer pressure: Their family and friends are pushing them to convert, or have all come forward and said the sinner’s prayer, and they don’t wanna be the only one who hasn’t.
  • Evangelist pressure: “Hey buddy, I’ll say whatever you want; just leave me alone.”

So obviously the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough. Neither is simply saying “Jesus is Lord” Ro 10.9 when he’s never really gonna become our Lord. Neither is raising a hand or nodding one’s head when the pastor calls for it after a sermon. Momentary affirmations, followed up by nothing, mean nothing.

Conversion is a lifestyle. Really, it’s the Christian lifestyle. We live an entire lifestyle of repentance, of realizing we’re wrong and Jesus is right, of adapting our lives to his teachings. That’s what people have to realize they’re getting into, and if our gospel message doesn’t tell them this, we’re doing it wrong. Because if all they think it takes to become Christian is to say the magic words and hocus pocus we’re Christian, it certainly explains all the pagans who believe they’re Christian.

Evangelism isn’t a quick-’n-dirty 15-minute process. We start by finding people who are actually curious about and interested in the gospel. We share the good news about Jesus and his kingdom, and we see whether people are interested in investigating further. Then we help ’em investigate. We help ’em find a church, get ’em into a newbies class or bible study or anything where they can ask questions and get useful answers. This is, after all, what Jesus instructs us to do: Make disciples. Mt 28.19-20 Not converts. He wants more students. A convert only wants to be Christian—for now—but isn’t Christian yet. A student of Jesus is Christian.

Yep, evangelism’s a longer job than you thought.

Clearly, bringing people to Jesus takes time and work. Not that pressuring people into a decision isn’t work, but this is a whole different kind of work: We’re looking for people who show definite interest in Jesus, instead of finding a bunch of randoms who show no interest and we make ’em interested.

Yeah, it takes time to find such people. We gotta share the gospel with a whole lot of people before the truly curious come out. But in my experience, when we share the actual gospel—not the “you’re going to hell lest you repent” story which dark Christians love so much, nor the “Jesus will make you rich” prosperity gospel, nor the “free salvation, no strings attached” rubbish so popular with fly-by-night evangelists—we’re gonna find a lot of interest. People really haven’t heard the actual gospel; they’re more familiar with the bent versions, and rightly find ’em alienating. The good news actually sounds kinda good!

In sales-pitch evangelism, once the deal is sealed, we’re pretty much done; follow-up is for other suckers, and it’s their fault, not ours, if they drop the ball. In proper evangelism, evangelism and follow-up are not two different things. Our job isn’t done till the newbies are in church, getting their questions answered, developing relationships with fellow Christians, getting committed enough to Jesus to want baptism and to become church members. Sometimes not even then.

And I admit, sometimes the results are disappointing. I’ve had people go to church for a month or two, then lose interest and quit. Life got in the way, they claim; things got “too busy.” Which are just lame excuses. When we’re serious enough about something, we’ll make the time for it. In all honesty, they tried Christianity out a little, and decided it wasn’t for them. Sad. But it happens.

Look, when you came to Jesus, was it the result of a quick and near-instant conversion? Or was it a long process which took months, even years? Surveys tell us three in 10 Christians had those sudden conversions to Jesus—followed of course by several months of follow-up. But four of those 10 gradually came to the conclusion Jesus is Lord and they oughta follow him. And the rest grew up Christian. So that means most of us took the long way to get to Jesus. Yeah, the dramatic conversion story makes for exciting testimonies. But it’s not the typical Christian testimony.

Look, if someone wants Jesus right now, says the sinner’s prayer and means it, and from that point onward is the most enthusiastic new believer ever, don’t stop it from happening! It’s always fun to watch. Just make sure they’re with fellow Christians who steer ’em right. But our usual expectation should be the long process, which begins with curiosity and ends with salvation.

And during this process—not necessarily at the beginning, nor the end—the Holy Spirit seals the deal. Not us; it’s never our deal to seal. It’s his.

So get away from this mindset of sealing a deal, making a sale, forcing results, cornering people who are trying to escape; just don’t. Share Jesus, and if people are interested, bring ’em to church. If they’re not, don’t sweat it; shake off their dust and move along.

It’s just that simple… and complicated. Real life is messy, you know. So is real evangelism.