We’ve been on the streets of Southampton over the past 12 days. Over 550 people have now prayed a prayer of response to Jesus. This is the prayer they’ve prayed:
Lord Jesus. Come into my heart. Forgive me of my sins. Wash me. Change me. Set me free. Let me never be the same again. Lord Jesus. I believe you died for me. Thank you that you rose from the dead and that you now pray for me from heaven. Help me to live for you. And fulfil everything you have called me to do. I thank you that I am now forgiven. And on my way to heaven. In Jesus name. AMEN.
As I said, over 550 people have willingly prayed that prayer (and many hundreds were not interested!). But rather than being met with wholesale enthusiasm I have picked up a fair amount of scepticism and negativity from some quarters. So, let me unpack some of my learning.
We’ve lost the art of evangelism!
Most of the evangelistic endeavours we employ in the western world is event based. We (church leaders) put on events and encourage church members to invite their friends in order that we (church leaders or invited evangelists0 can lead those friends to Christ. We spend lots of money on advertising, hiring venues, bands, entertainers and evangelists. And then we (nearly always) get disappointed because ‘the people’ didn’t bring ‘their friends’. I know that may not be true in your world but it has been the case in mine (and many of my church leader friends).
But this is quite different. Ordinary people mobilised to share the Good News simply to strangers on the street.
The thought of doing this terrified me. I had done this stuff years ago. It was hard work and didn’t really work. So, as I faced the prospect of getting out there again I had to examine my heart and ask why it terrified me so much.
I had to recognise that I had become indifferent to people who didn’t know Christ. My heart had become cold. I also had to recognise that I had lost confidence in the power of the Gospel to change and transform people’s lives. I’d been around church too long trying to fix broken people, helping people with doubt and unanswered prayer and struggling with my own stuff and disappointments. Did I still believe ‘just one touch from the King could change everything’?
And then there was ‘the script’ – this wasn’t the Gospel. It was far too limiting and restrictive.
And on top of that there was the question of ‘follow up’. We are about making disciples not simply encouraging people to make a decision.
So, I took my fear, doubts and questions and took the plunge and ‘got out there’.
Context and culture
I’ve reflected on the reasons why many of us find evangelism so hard. I think a lot of it has to do with our (British) context and culture.
Here’s some thoughts.
One of the reasons we (British church members) find it so hard to evangelise – friends or strangers – is because of the predominant cultural values where we live.
We’re British. Reserved. Respecting privacy (wealth means we gain more of it. Remote homes. Higher fences. More ‘space’). Non-offensive. Stoic. Critical (in the positive sense, i.e. we don’t take everything at face value).
Most of us, therefore, don’t want to be approached on the street, and be ‘invaded’ by someone else’s opinions, or sold something we don’t want or asked to fill in some sort of questionnaire.
As well as the heart issues I had to address I had these mental barriers to break through. I wasn’t alone. Not only were we breaking out of our personal comfort zones we were breaking these unspoken cultural values.
I’m not saying we suddenly had to become brash and offensive. But rather bold and confident.
The journey for the church in the UK over the past few decades has seen us learn to love our neighbour and serve our communities in unprecedented ways. We’ve learned that we do this with ‘no strings attached’. We don’t care for the orphan to ‘get them saved’ but because we recognise their intrinsic worth as a human being and we proclaim by our actions the reality of the coming Kingdom.
As we have partnered with local authorities and central government we’ve had to make clear that our goal is not to proselytise but to serve.
So moving from that environment to evangelism on the streets takes another mental leap. The two Archbishops – Sentamu and Welby – have really helped me here. They both regularly mix with government, royalty, other faith leaders and business leaders. As I have observed them in those contexts they speak diplomatically but as I observe in other contexts (and in the case of John Sentamu, on the streets) I hear them freely talk about Jesus, faith and the challenge of discipleship. It’s what people expect of them.
So I had to break through this barrier and get comfortable with the fact (again) that I’m first and foremost a ‘minister of the Gospel of Jesus’ and people expect me to talk about Jesus.
At this year’s Pioneer leaders conference I talked about the way the Methodist movement saw a huge growth in membership and influenced societal change in the 19th century. Both elements were critically important. An evangelistic zeal that saw 1000s of people come to Christ and people of influence changing legislation, setting up organisations to meet society’s challenges and using their wealth for the benefit of others.
So, I’ve realised we just need a bit of boldness wrapped in genuine love. We’ve spent too long in meetings asking for ‘more’, making declarations and then hoping God does something sovereignly that doesn’t involve us. In Acts 4 the church prayed for ‘more’. The Lord answered their prayers and sent the Holy Spirit AND gave them boldness to speak. When they spoke they saw fruit.
We have been silent for too long. These last few days have shown me that we need to get our tongues loosened.
The truth it’s not just about the ‘streets’. We’ve been silent for too long with our neighbours, family members, work colleagues and school friends.
It’s time to find our voice.
What on earth is happening?
I have probably had more feedback and questions about two very specific things – ‘the script’ and ‘follow up’.
Before I tackle those I want to share some thoughts on the wider perspective of what I sense the Spirit is doing.
Firstly let me say there does appear to be something quite unprecedented going on with ‘The Turning’. The sheer numbers of people responding with a willingness to pray the prayer I outlined in part 1 is staggering. Over 1800 in Reading in 4 weeks, 650+ in Liverpool in 2 weeks and now over 550 in Southampton. I don’t think the UK has witnessed this level of responsiveness since the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s/60s and the Jesus Movement in the late 60s/early 70s.
So, it’s important that we take time to look at a wider perspective of what the Spirit is doing. I think there is more going on than we see.
I find the timing interesting.
The EA, HOPE and the CfE recently produced the ‘Talking Jesus’ report which highlighted the challenges facing the church with regards the perception of the wider population to Jesus and faith. And then, the two Archbishops, in partnership with 24-7prayer, called the (Anglican) church to set aside the week leading up to Pentecost as a ‘week of prayer for Christians to find fresh confidence and boldness to share their faith’. It was a huge ‘success’. Over 5,000 prayer rooms were set up with an estimated 100,000 people involved from a wide range of churches.
A few weeks later news began to trickle out about tens of people responding to Christ on the streets of Reading every day. A Baptist Church? A Nigerian Scot or Scottish Nigerian (as Yinka refers to himself)? An American evangelist? Reading?
Was the Lord answering our prayers?
Lynn Green, the General Secretary of the Baptist Union, brought a prophetic word to the church in Reading a few months previously about an outpouring in Reading that would affect the nation. (You can watch a video of Lynn delivering the word on Yinka’s Facebook page). By Lynn’s own admission it’s not what she normally does or how she normally operates.
That’s why when things began to ‘kick off’ in Reading Yinka soon began to realise ‘this was that that was spoken of by the prophet’. Yinka quickly sought to engage other churches in the city (another hallmark of what seems to happening) as he realised this was way bigger than one local church’s outreach.
It’s easy to be put off or take offence by ‘style’ and I know some people were. I went to Pensacola with my friend, Matt Hyam, in the late 90s. We hated the style. But after working through our cultural discomfort we both had incredible encounters with God.
I have been hugely impressed with the way Yinka and the church in Reading have taken responsibility to steward what God is doing. 31 towns and cities in the UK have requested that Yinka brings a team to work with them.
So, what do I think is happening?
I think God is responding to the prayers of many over many years. I also believe the church’s engagement with the least and most forgotten in recent years has pleased the heart of God. It’s what the church is called to do and should always be doing.
The heart for unity, so evident in so many places, is according to Psalm 133, the signal for God’s blessing. As we have humbled ourselves and recognised our brothers and sisters in Christ He is empowering his church with a fresh confidence and boldness.
This is about the Body. The ministry gifts given to the church listed by Paul in Ephesians 4 are to equip the ‘saints for works of service.
At the same time political, economic and institutional challenges have created an openness and hunger in people’s hearts for something more.
What we’re witnessing on the streets is the result/fruit of all the above.
The scattering of seed on well ploughed soil. The watering of seeds that have already been planted and, in some cases, we are seeing the harvest. It’s all happening at the same time.
Amos 9:13 ‘The days are coming’, declares the Lord, ‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills’.
I think we’ll see the real fruit in the church of this time in the next 5 – 10 years if we stay committed to share the Gospel – with our words and actions – and consistently share the ‘way of salvation’ with those around us.
As I’ve said one of the things people have struggled with on hearing about what’s happening on the streets is ‘the script’ that the team uses.
A friend of mine, Philip Emerson, leads Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. At the beginning of the year he encouraged every church member to ask the Lord for the opportunity to lead one person to Christ in 2016. The main feedback he received was that a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do. So, they developed a simple tool – a set of cards with some Bible verses and a prayer to lead someone to faith in Christ.
The script is simply that. A helpful tool to lead people to the point of decision.
Archbishop John Sentamu has spent a lot of time recently on the streets talking with people about Jesus. He uses the Lord’s Prayer as his main script.
As a church we have been good at praying for blessing or healing but the script takes it one step further – encouraging people to make a response.
The script leads a person through to that point of decision and gives confidence to those using it to know what to do.
The challenge with any communication of the Gospel is how do you do justice to this most incredible Good News in a 5 or 10 minute conversation.
Paul summarised the Gospel in what became one of the earliest ‘scripts’ (or creeds):
1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
So, it’s possible!
The script that ‘The Turning’ team are using has been widely used in many evangelistic contexts. It’s not perfect but it’s not a bad attempt at presenting the way of salvation succinctly in non-religious language.
Before I go through the script I want to say that I recognise becoming a follower of Christ is a life-long journey. Praying a prayer or should I say praying THE prayer is not some sort of magic that guarantees your ticket to heaven. That’s not what Jesus was about. But in our context – post-Christian Britain – I wonder if the invitation is awakening a spiritual hunger in those that are praying it?
Someone asked me if this sort of approach does more harm than good. Does it not give people a false sense of security? My experience has been that the majority of people we spoke to this week have no God-consciousness, that is, they never think about God from one day to the next. It’s just not something they are interested in or concerned about. Just having the conversation, offering prayer, inviting the person to pray can only be a positive thing. One of things that thrilled me the most was walking around the city centre seeing groups of Christians engaged in conversations about Jesus with people on street.
So, what’s in ‘script’?
God loves you and has a plan for your life!
This is the opening line. Not a bad attempt to declare the Good News. This is the same good news that the Angels announced in Luke 1. Their proclamation of Good News heralded the fact that God hadn’t forgotten his people. He was sending a saviour because he loved them and had a purpose for them.
If you were to die tonight do you know with certainty that you would go to heaven?
This is probably the line most of us struggle with. My understanding of the Gospel is much bigger, broader and greater than ‘going to heaven’. I have read too much Tom Wright.
But the Good News – Christ installed as King, his incarnation, death and resurrection ushering in a new age – needs to move from the cosmic to the individual.
I am seeing this statement as asking, ‘do you have the assurance of salvation’. It’s possible to know we’re saved, our sins are forgiven and our eternal destiny is secured.
This is what John Wesley sought and finally discovered when ‘his heart was strangely warmed when he knew that Christ had indeed forgiven his sins’.
But this sort of language has no meaning for the average unchurched person. But the language of what happens when you die does. Most people in our culture assume everyone (except really bad people) goes to heaven when they die. But they’ve never been challenged to think about it.
I don’t mind putting the challenge out there. When I got saved I didn’t have a full understanding of the Gospel – I was afraid I would go to hell. At that stage that was it. It was my starting point but it’s not where I’ve ended up. My understanding has grown and matured over time.
The script then leads into three verses from Romans:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.
Whoever calls in the name of the Lord will be saved.
In his book, The King Jesus Gospel, Scott McKnight makes a distinction between the Gospel – which is proclaimed – and the way of salvation – which can be explained. I like that. The script begins with the declaration of Good News and then in these verse shows the way of salvation.
Then there is the invitation for the person to pray along with you inviting Christ into their hearts.
This is what good evangelists are able to do – bring people to the point of decision. The Gospel has implications for every human being and we all have to make a response.
I’m amazed at how many people have been comfortable to pray this prayer out loud on the street with a complete stranger!
Apart from taking contact details to enable follow up, that’s it!
I hadn’t got to that point one on one with anyone in years. This week I’ve had the privilege of doing it numerous times.
You may not like this approach. My challenge to you would then be to develop something that works for you.
One of our guys has changed the wording in the script but keeps to the overall structure and flow. That works for him.
As I said at the start, it’s not perfect but it’s not a bad attempt to succinctly and clearly communicate the Gospel and lead people to a point of response.
Our church’s vision is to see Changed Lives & Transformed Communities. Our mission is to see fully surrendered disciples of Jesus bringing transformation to their communities as they love their neighbour, share the Gospel and make their contribution.
Over the past couple of years we have been defining the process that enables our vision to become reality. For us, this involves four stages (not necessarily linear) of seeing people come to:
Find a place of belonging
Grow in their knowledge of what it means to be a disciple
Engage in their world
Therefore, the number of people ‘getting saved’ or the size of our church are not the main criteria for success. ‘Success’ (not a word I particularly enjoy using in this context) is when people who have encountered Christ, discover what they’re called to and get on and do it. The result of their engagement is community transformation. It’s a lot harder to measure but that’s what we’re about.
The area we have been weakest in is the area of seeing people come to know Christ. So, it’s interesting to me that we know have a dilemma about how we see those who have prayed on the street enter a lifelong journey of discipleship.
The team in Reading are working really hard at this and I know the guys at Causeway Coast Vineyard – who have now seen a few thousand people respond on the streets – are also grappling with the challenges.
I don’t think there are lots of easy answers but here’s a few (early) reflections.
1. Language. What is happening when people willingly pray a prayer inviting Christ into their lives. I would say, just that. I would avoid saying people have been ‘converted’, ‘saved’ or ‘become Christians’. They have simply made a response to what they have heard about Christ. I would say for some of these people they will look back and recognise that was the moment of their conversion but for the vast majority a seed has been sown or a seed has been watered. This isn’t a cop-out but a realistic assessment of what’s happening. For many the ‘knowledge gap’ is enormous and therefore the process could take a long time. I’m encouraged by testimonies of people who had random encounters with Christians and 5, 10, 15 years later made a commitment to follow Christ. The initial encounter was the beginning of their journey.
2. We probably need to ask if the ‘wine skins’ we currently have are sufficient for what is happening. My suspicion is that they’re not. Our current model of drawing people into an established Christian community may not work for those who are contacted on the street. Jesus spent 3 years travelling round the villages in Israel proclaiming Good News but we have no record or evidence of ‘Jesus communities’ being established during that time. I’m not sure what that could look like but maybe we need to be more present and visible with a focus on going to with than inviting people to come to?
3. I came across the term ‘Saturation Evangelism’ a number of years ago. It generally refers to a mass distribution of evangelistic material in an area. Over the past two weeks we have seen almost 300 Christians trained and released onto the streets of Southampton to share about Jesus. A whole new take on the term ‘saturation evangelism’. The apostle Paul says that as we sow generously we will also reap generously. There has to be an element of faith in what we’re doing. We are scattering seed generously and can expect a generous harvest. This can’t just be a two week binge and then we’re never seen again but we have to develop a consistent and faithful presence on our streets but one that is sustainable.
4. The real shift will come as we see the culture in the church change. One of our friend’s 12 year old daughter led her best friend to Christ at school on Monday. I can imagine in 10 years time Milly (not her real name) getting up one Sunday to share her testimony as she embarks on a missions trip to Malawi and recalls how her best friend told her about Jesus when she was 12. Imagine that story repeated across our church congregations. Culture takes time to change. I think we’re looking at a 3 – 5 year time frame if we maintain the focus. 9 years ago we embarked on a journey to see city transformation. 9 years on we are amazed at the number of fresh initiatives that have sprung up, the partnerships that have emerged and the individuals now serving in key roles across the city. Changing culture takes time.
5. The church has come together in a amazing way over the past two weeks with the simple goal of sharing Jesus. It’s not been about promoting a particular church, stream or denomination. All sorts of churches are now getting involved following up those who have responded. I know this pleases the heart of God. What it also means is that we will all be grappling with the challenge of following up the 500+ people who have responded. I’m excited to see what creative solutions might emerge as we learn together.
These are just my early reflections. I’m sure they’ll evolve and be reshaped in the light of our experiences over the next few months. But I was keen to enable others to have some insight as to what is going on.
It could be a significant moment in the life of the church in the nation on all sorts of levels.