Is Evangelism Relevant?

By Leighton Ford

To many modern observers, evangelism seems like an antique chair in a museum: a curious relic of the past and an interesting phenomenon for study, but not to be sat on, not fit to bear the weight of today’s burdens — a hopeless anachronism in the twentieth-century world.

What is the use, ask such critics, of a church on its knees praying for lost souls, while a blinding population explosion dooms 100,000 new babies every day to slow starvation? What good is it for a vast throng to jam a stadium and listen to a sermon, while red-raw festering wounds of racial hatred blister the hide of civilization? Isn’t it worse than futile to take a man into a corner and ask if he’s “saved,” while a terrifying arms race spawns mass terror weapons? Evangelism seems a ridiculous — yes, downright dangerous — misdirecting of our energies.

Even some Christians have had their zeal for evangelism hamstrung by these doubts. They wonder whether, as W. E. Sangster put it, “an aspirin as a cure for cancer would be less ridiculous than evangelism as the answer to the world’s present ills. The human situation is so urgent. Talk of ‘world revolution by individual conversion’ is like talking about a long endowment policy to a man sitting on a time bomb.” Is evangelism really relevant amidst the tangled complexities of our modern dilemma?

Let me confess at the outset that I make no pretense of being objective. I write as a committed Christian and a committed evangelist. “Is evangelism relevant?” My answer is a resounding Yes! When people inquire as to the relevance of our Gospel, we must not be tricked into going on the defensive. We must immediately take the offensive, for our Lord Himself has promised that the gates of hell shall not withstand the assault of His Church. In this light, we need to rethink the question itself.

First, we need to define the subject of this question. “Is evangelism relevant?” really means “Is the evangel relevant?” For the genius of Christian evangelism is not in its method, but in its message. There are many “evangelistic” techniques. Communism has its brainwashing; Islam its proselytism; the commercial world its hidden persuaders. But the relevance of Christian evangelism really concerns not its means, but its content. The message of evangelism is simply — Jesus Christ. Christian evangelism does not depend on any given technique; but it does depend on one given message-that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. So, when we ask “Is evangelism relevant?” we are really asking, “Is Jesus Christ relevant?”

Second, we need to determine the thrust of this question, “Is evangelism relevant?” Relevant for what? And for whom?

I was asked recently to engage in a panel TV discussion on the topic “Is Religion the Answer?” My answer was blunt: No! And I answered “No” because the question itself involved a mis­understanding of our real situation before God.

Certainly Christ is the answer to ultimate questions! But our man-centered, earth-centered outlook tries to put God, as it were, “on the spot”! It is as if we present God with certain problems, grant Him a polite hearing, and then if He can sup­ply reasonable solutions, we con­sider the possibility of taking His advice.

The whole idea is absurd! It is God who is asking the questions:  from the beginning of Scripture, God addresses men and demands their response, calls to Adam “Where art thou?” and to Cain “Where is Abel, thy brother?” Is evangelism relevant? Again we ask, for what? Our purposes or God’s?

The charge that Jesus Christ is irrelevant is not new. Indeed, people made the same accusation during His lifetime. John, in his gospel, tells of a great crowd which followed Jesus because they had seen His miracles, and says that He took some loaves and fishes from a little boy and fed the multitude with this tiny lunch. Because the people did not understand this sign, they tried to seize Jesus and make Him king by force. But when Jesus realized their plan, He withdrew to the hills by Him­self.

It is noteworthy that Jesus declined to be king on their terms. If He had wished to, He could have begun at that very moment a popular uprising against the Roman forces of occupation. But He refused to be “relevant.” Why? As William Barclay has commented, “They wished to use him for their own purposes and to mold him to their own dreams. They looked for a messiah who would be king and conqueror, who would set his foot upon the eagle’s neck and drive the Romans from Palestine, who would change Israel from a subject nation to a world power.”

“What a king he’d make,” thought the crowd. “Let’s harness his power to our plans and purposes.” That attitude still lingers. We want Christ’s gifts without His cross. We want to use Christ instead of allowing Him to use us. Our humanistic, man-centered age habitually thinks more of what we want than of what God wants. The real question is not “ls Jesus Christ relevant to us?” but “Are we relevant to the purposes of Christ?”

Third, we need to decide the perspective from which we can answer this question. Our personal commitments are involved. A southern historian once wrote what he called “an unbiased history of the Civil War from the southern point of view”! If a man does not believe in God, nothing we can say is going to convince him that evangelism matters. The man who is opposed to the Gospel because he realizes its disturbing claims on his life cannot be neutral. He has a built-in hostility. Only the Holy Spirit can make evangelism relevant to him.

Much of the talk of making Christianity relevant is 2,000 years old. Like the crowd who followed Jesus because they ate their fill of the loaves but were not interested in “the food which endures to eternal life,” the ungodly man assumes that nothing is relevant unless it gives first place to the material. The secularist says we no longer need God to fill the gaps in our knowledge; the Communist, that religion is an opiate; the sophisticate, that faith is fine for children but excess baggage for grown-ups.

But what man thinks is relevant and what really is relevant to God may be very different things. Repentance, regeneration, and conversion mean a change of attitude and an inversion of values, without which men will still follow the mob that acclaimed Jesus when He offered them bread for their stomachs, but when He talked about eternal life, murmured, “This fellow isn’t relevant anymore,” and went on looking for a more popular prophet.

It is only the man who has fed his hungry soul on Christ, the Bread of Life, who appreciates His true relevance and is able, like Peter, to answer Jesus’ poignant question “Will you also go away?” with a firm “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Even the committed Christian has a problem in getting the whole picture. Eternity is the only adequate perspective from which to view the relevance of evangelism because there are eternal issues at stake. In evangelism we have to walk by faith and not by sight. We must evangelize not because we can see our success and prove our relevance, not because we can ferret out all the implications of our witness today for personal and social life tomorrow, but because our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself the great Master Strategist, commands us to do so, and we believe that He will not let His Word return void.

History is helpful here. Looking back, we can see how God has blessed His Word in a way that would have been obscure to the people of a past age. What would the critics have said if they had seen that Jewish carpenter preaching from a boat and hanging from a cross? Would they have guessed that He, and not the Roman legions, would be the “hinge of history”? Can you imagine how contemptuously they would have dismissed Paul’s preaching in Athens? Could they have guessed that the message he preached would smash paganism and turn the Parthenon itself into a Christian church for centuries to come?

Which event would they have picked as most relevant in the early years of the fifth century: Alaric’s sacking of the city of Rome in 410, or Augustine’s writing of The City of God in 413? Yet it was the bishop’s book, not the barbarian’s bands, that controlled the Middle Ages.

Suppose they had lived in eighteenth-century England while revolution was brewing across the Channel and threatening in their own land, and had heard John Wesley preaching in a field. They would have cried, “Come down to earth! Problems enough here. Forget heaven. Be relevant.” But Lecky has said that the Wesleyan revival saved England from the French Revolution.

If we are tempted to think our Gospel is too puny for this spinning age of space and new revolutions, then let us remember that Paul and Augustine and Wesley were relevant because they preached Christ — and Christ is always relevant …

How then are we to present the relevance of Christ for personal need? Certainly not as a Christ who is only a crutch for the maimed. Most assuredly not as a beggar Christ, seeking for man’s condescending patronage. We shall present Him as the Imperial Lord — “for we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord.” We shall present Him as Lord over death — “I am the resurrection and the life.” We shall present Him as Lord over sin and guilt — “I am come to give my life a ransom for many.” We shall proclaim Him as Lord over the meaningless — “I am the Way — follow me,” remembering that at the bottom it is not the fear that Christ is irrelevant that makes men turn from Him. Rather, it is the knowledge that He is too relevant, too disturbing, too demanding. And it is only when men see His total Lordship, His claim to all of life, that they will see His relevancy as their Savior.

The Christian life must begin with personal experience, but it must not end there. If Jesus Christ is Lord of all, then He is Lord of our relationships to others in society. It is a scandal when we as Christ’s disciples compartmentalize our lives, putting our personal piety in one segment and our social responsibility in another.

Think of John Campbell White, the Scottish chemical manufacturer, who was influenced by Moody to become an evangelical leader in missions, revival, Sabbath observance, and abstinence. What a scandal it was when Keir Hardie showed that White’s employees were paid only three to four pence an hour, worked twelve hours a day with no time off for meals, had for the most part not one day off a week, and worked in horrid filth! White’s defense was that he was so busy with his religious activities that he left the direction of his business to others!

White is not the norm. One need not search far through history to find the social impact of the Gospel — as in the abolition of slavery. “The two doctrines which contributed most to the abolition of slavery,” declared Benjamin Kidd in his Social Evolution, “were the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the equality of all men before the Deity.”

John Howard, the  great champion of prison reform, was quick to recognize John Wesley’s influence on his life. “I was encouraged by him to go on vigorously with my own designs,” he wrote of a meeting with Wesley in Dublin. “I saw in him how much a single man might achieve by zeal and perseverance; and I thought, why may I not do as much in my way as Mr. Wesley has done in his, if I am only as persevering? And I determined that I would pursue my work with more alacrity than ever.”

Like our Lord, who healed the sick and fed the hungry, we must see men as whole men, not as disembodied souls to be prepackaged for heaven. Evangelicals today must be deeply concerned to stand in the great tradition of those who down through the centuries have given the lie to the charge that we are simply promoting “pie in the sky.” …

We know that Jesus Christ is relevant to this burdened, bleeding, broken world. The point is that Christ wants to use us to show the world that He is relevant, that He does matter to them, and that they do matter to Him. He has given to us this ministry of reconciliation.

In the year 1909, the Hon. Earl Balfour was lecturing at the University of Edinburgh on “The Moral Values Which Unite Nations.” He had mentioned diplomatic contacts, commerce, common knowledge, common friendships. At the end there was applause and a question period. Then a Japanese student rose and asked, “But, Mr. Balfour, what about Jesus Christ?”

There was dead silence. Everybody felt the irony of the question as a foreign student from a far-off non-Christian land inquired of one of the great diplomatic leaders of the greatest Christian nation of that day, “What about Jesus Christ?”

This is how we make evangelism relevant. We ask of a world wistfully searching for security, forgiveness, purpose, peace, and love, “What about Jesus Christ?”

Leighton Ford is an Associate Evangelist, Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. This article is condensed from The Christian Persuader. Copyright © 1966 by Leighton F. S. Ford, used by permission Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

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