When Evangelism Doesn’t Work
Silence is a finicky thing. In the forest, silence is a beautiful thing. After a sales pitch, silence is long and uncomfortable. After a gospel presentation, silence is heartbreaking. Silence combined with deadness of face, just for a second, was the worst experience I’ve felt in a long time.
Two young women sat in my office. They both seemed capable, intelligent, and easy-going. They were also missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often known informally as the Mormon Church). In a later post, I may talk about the LDS Church more generally. But when I had the opportunity to meet with these women, I didn’t meet with them to try to disprove Mormon doctrine. I did it to reach them with the true Jesus.
At the end of only our second meeting, I laid that out to them plainly. I told them, nearly with tears in my eyes, they followed a false gospel and needed Christ alone to be saved. I hate conflict and tension, but I cared more about their souls than my discomfort.
What followed was the worst silence I’ve endured.
Their lack of facial expression shouted that they’d heard this before. The absence of words may only have been because they were stunned at how emotional I was. One of them finally broke the silence with an even worse sound: “We get it. We’re right there with you.”
They didn’t get it. They thought their Jesus was the one I was talking about. They so clearly didn’t get it. Our time was up, and they had another meeting to get to. I asked my friend sitting in on the meeting to walk them out because I couldn’t find the strength to stand up. I thanked them for meeting with me, then I hit my knees as soon as they left. I begged God that something I said would stick with them, just bother them enough to look more into it. But I knew it might not.
So what is a Christian to do after that? I knew I shouldn’t expect immediate sackcloth-and-ashes repentance—but blank stares? “We’re with you”? If the Holy Spirit was dwelling in me, why couldn’t they see it and feel it?
I know I’m not the first to experience these feelings.
When I was an atheist, I’m sure my parents went through this trying to save their son. Countless friends, families, and loved ones have presented the gospel to others without seeing fruit. To find hope in these scenarios, I went to the passage in Hebrews below.
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Heb. 7:23-25, ESV)
We are more similar to these former priests than we may like to admit. True, they lived under an old covenant, and we live under Christ’s new covenant. But we share many of their deficiencies. I’ll explore those deficiencies for a moment before coming back to how Jesus overcomes all of them.
Like the former priests, we only have a short time on earth to minister.
If you know anything about economics, you know that there will always be more you can do than you have the time, money, and energy to do. If we reach out to our neighbor next door, it means we’re not reaching out to our neighbor two doors down. If we evangelize in Uganda, it means we’re not evangelizing in El Salvador. When I shared the gospel with the LDS missionaries, I couldn’t share it with all the other unreached people on planet Earth. I had to be present with only two people, in my office, at that time.
The former priests weren’t always available to intercede for the people.
They had to sleep, if nothing else. Likewise, we aren’t always available to everyone who needs the gospel. We have to spend time with our families, we have to eat, and we have to sleep. We can’t be (shouldn’t be) constantly on our phones waiting for a text or call from someone in need. We can only minister to the people who are with us.
Finally, the former priests weren’t able to save people “to the uttermost.”
Other translations render εἰς ὁ παντελής as “completely” (CSB) or “for all time” (NRSV). The point is that these priests couldn’t save people. Neither can we. We can point them towards the One who can, but it is not in our strength to save people from God’s wrath. It’s only in His.
Here’s where we begin to get good news.
Jesus can completely save people. He is the One who completely and utterly saves forever. Jesus is always available. Jesus, in His heavenly reign, is not preoccupied with eating or sleeping, nor does He tire from His work. Jesus is available to all people at all times. Through the Holy Spirit, He is always present with all believers all over the world. Jesus is our great high priest, who continues forever in His omnipotence (being all-powerful) and omnipresence (being all places).
What does this mean for us? It means that no matter how unsuccessful our evangelism may be, Jesus can always save. We may only plant seeds, but God can always water. Days, weeks, even years after our time together, people can be saved, even if we only heard, “Thanks but no thanks.” The uncomfortable truth is that God may not save people when we’re with them. But as long as they have breath in their lungs, they can turn to God and be saved. William Tong, in his contribution to the Matthew Henry Commentary, stated Jesus’ superior priesthood like this:
There can be no vacancy in this priesthood, no hour nor moment in which the people are without a priest to negotiate their spiritual concerns in heaven. Such a vacancy might be very dangerous and prejudicial to them; but this is their safety and happiness, that this ever-living high priest is able to save to the utmost—in all times, in all cases, in every juncture.
So, our hope is not in being a Billy Graham-style evangelist who reaches thousands at a time or in bringing people to sackcloth-and-ashes repentance in the first interaction we have with them. Our hope is in pointing them to the eternal and omnipresent Jesus who can always save them. Our hope is in God.
As long as they have breath in their lungs, they can turn to God and be saved.
 William Tong, in Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2391.