Unbelief and Evangelism
by Phil Martin
I’ve been reflecting on a conversation that Sara had with her teacher. After studying the Bible together for a few weeks she had a few questions about Christ and the resurrection. The conversation concluded with, “This all sounds like a fairy tale.” Her point was that the resurrection is simply unbelievable.
Cross-cultural evangelists encounter numerous obstacles in our effort to make Christ known. Foremost is the never-ending challenge of learning the language. The cultural differences, missing friends and family, being away from spiritual community, and team conflict all present their own difficulties. But at the end of the day, the biggest hindrance to evangelism is the same around the world. In a word, unbelief.
People learn languages all the time. Many live far from family in cultures distinct from their own. Opening blind eyes is the one task that no one can accomplish. With man it is impossible. But with God…
In the name of seeing more fruit, much time is spent and ink spilled contemplating strategies for missions. How should we meet people? Where should we go? How can we maximize limited resources for the greatest eternal results? How can we use technology to spread the gospel? How can we help the gospel catch people’s attention?
I’ve become convinced that as good and necessary as these conversations can be, they are often a distraction or an excuse. Sometimes we turn to strategy because the task seems impossible forgetting that is exactly what it is. So when sowing gospel seeds isn’t leading to a harvest, an easy distraction is to trifle away hours, days, and weeks thinking up a better strategy. For some, imagining new converts is much more fun than actually making them.
Even in very low fruit contexts, the central problem is not that missionaries can’t find anyone willing to have a conversation about the gospel. It is that upon hearing, they don’t believe. Certainly we should think carefully about how we share this message in each context. But we should never think poor contextualization is what keeps the world from turning to Christ.
When we do admit that we simply don’t share the gospel that often, the lack of a strategy and training is an easy scapegoat. However, my friend Jon Smith was right when we said, “People don’t share the gospel because they don’t want to.” Strategy is rarely, if ever, the real problem. I think many of us just don’t like hearing a person we’ve invested many hours into say, “I can’t believe this.” So the problem isn’t with our ideas and plans. The problem is with our own hearts.
Lest we think that this perspective would lead us to pride or apathy, we must be quick to remember that it was just as impossible for each one of us to believe. Even more, It was faithful preaching that persisted despite our unbelief that God used to give us faith.
So how then should we think about evangelism in the face of unbelief? Should it surprise us? No, not at all. The natural man cannot discern these spiritual truths. Should it discourage us? Never, for what is impossible with man, is possible with God. What unbelief should do is humble us and drive us to our knees. Our only hope of seeing our neighbors, nieces, and nations acknowledge our Savior is God Himself. And if God is our hope, we have a sure and certain hope. He will open hearts to believe. So, in faith, we will keep preaching, pleading, and praying.