Lyle Pointer was gripped with a love for faith-sharing over 50 years ago as a young teenager when he and some neighborhood friends introduced a new boy to Jesus Christ, after riding bikes near his home. Lyle says, “I was growing spiritually at the time, but the ascent of that singular moment crystalized when God reached down and touched Ronnie’s heart but also our hearts. It was a life-changing moment.” Lyle explored other witnessing methods, such as The Four Spiritual Laws, a popular booklet summarizing the essentials of salvation, developed by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Soon, Pointer realized he had a gift for evangelism and made this his life’s chief study. At Nazarene Theological Seminary, Pointer found a willing mentor in evangelism professor Charles “Chic” Shaver. Lyle recounts, “Chic was adamant in saying, ‘We must do the work of evangelism.’” After his first pastorate, Pointer became minister of evangelism at Bethany First Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma. During this time, he completed a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. Later, Pointer taught evangelism at Southern Nazarene University and Nazarene Theological Seminary. He is the co-author of Evangelism in Everyday Life: Sharing and Shaping Your Faith, published in 1998. Pointer says, “Rightly understood, evangelism is the declaration of Good News by word, deed, and sign. It is God’s affirmation of the truth that we proclaim in deed and in word and in the lives of people.” Currently, Lyle serves as senior pastor of Mount Vernon Church of the Nazarene in Washington state. Grace and Peace Magazine recently met with Pointer to ask him about evangelism.
G&P: Which life experiences have impacted your thinking on evangelism?
Lyle Pointer: As a student at Northwest Nazarene University, I was involved in Nazarene Evangelistic Thrust (NET), which trained students in evangelism. At that time, the methods were The Four Spiritual Laws and Life Can Have Meaning. I was also introduced to a book by Gene Edwards, a Southern Baptist, called How to Have a Soul Winning Church. I had an affinity with his approach, which was to ask questions to get people to talk about spiritual things. This book was formative and later influenced my own approach to evangelism. When I got into seminary, I was introduced to James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion, which was influential. Ponder Gilliland, a Nazarene pastor, wrote a helpful book, Witnessing to Win, which encouraged people to talk about spiritual matters. Later, I did post-doctoral work with Ben Campbell Johnson, who wrote Rethinking Evangelism. Of course, Chic Shaver, whom I followed as a professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary, was a tremendous mentor. My heart said “amen” to each of these influences.
G&P: How did early Nazarenes go about evangelizing others?
LP: The early Church of the Nazarene used various forms of mass, personal, congregational or small group evangelism and revivalism. Mass evangelism would occur at a rally, crusade, or church service where an altar call or some type of invitation to faith was extended. Holiness people came together around a lifestyle that was radically different from the rest of the culture, and that was attractive to many people. In addition, Nazarenes have always been committed to ministry to the poor and disenfranchised, and this has been a wonderful means by which the gospel has been shared. Where you find a deep commitment to God and an overflowing love for people, you’ll find evangelism taking place.
G&P: How do you understand the relationship between holiness and evangelism?
LP: Holiness people should be the best evangelists in the world. Our love for God and for others and our willingness to be guided by the Spirit should make us effective evangelists. Our confidence and belief in God’s grace should give us eyes to see how God is at work in the life of a sinner. Holiness people should help other people identify the prevenient grace of God at work in their lives. In my 20s, I had an older friend who worked with me in a logging mill. I talked to him about the Lord, and he said he had gone to church as a child, but now was away from God. One day he was whistling “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I said, “Do you know what you’re whistling?” I told him what it was. He said, “I learned that as a kid, I can’t believe it! I’ve been whistling that for years.” Well, that became a point of openness to talk about God.
G&P: How do you look at the process of conversion?
LP: Conversion is a fascinating topic when you look at the New Testament. Unlike the apostle Paul, who was converted dramatically on the road to Damascus in an undeniable “before” and “after” moment, the conversion of the other disciples is not so clear-cut. Did their conversion result from Jesus’ initial invitation to follow him? Did it result when Peter was the first to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus replies, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). Or did their conversion occur after Jesus’ resurrection, when he appeared to the disciples and breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Their conversion is not so cut and dried. What does that say to us? It says that while our salvation may happen in an instant, that God continues to save us. We are always in the process of learning to be followers. We are still being changed as God sanctifies us. And here’s the tie-in: all of this takes place between evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism is our initiation into the kingdom of God. It is our introduction to a relationship with Christ after which, kingdom living is necessary, and discipleship is ongoing.
G&P: Why do we sometimes get confused about evangelism and its place in the life of the church?
LP:Our confusion arises from two sources: the church and society. In the church, we’ve adopted some poor ways of looking at evangelism, such as the sales model. A man once told me, “My wife can’t lead someone to Jesus, I’m the salesman.” And it was quite the opposite. Her sensitivity and caring made her an excellent witness. Even the idea of “winning someone to Jesus” can sound exalted and competitive. It’s us doing something to someone. It can lead to self-glorification. We’ve also put a division between discipleship and evangelism, which is unnecessary. The two are coupled together clearly in Scripture and should be in our practice and theology as well.
Christianity in America has moved from an elevated position of most-favored-religion to something much less. The faltering of religious leaders and the intolerance of some Christians has led some to question the authenticity of Christianity. An important societal shift is religious pluralism, which advances the idea that there are lots of ways to God. This has created difficulty in how Christians talk about Jesus Christ, salvation, and other truth claims. We also have to deal with issues of tolerance, which has made the church ill at ease, since honest debate and discussion is sometimes hard to achieve. These things have made evangelism more difficult to talk about but have not rendered it any less important to the life of the church.
G&P: Would the idea of a guide who invites people to faith be a better model than that of “salesmen”?
LP: Yes, I like that. Our definition of evangelism needs to include the idea of spiritual guidance. We’re here to help people move into a relationship with God, and we need to recognize that this involves important decision-making components. I say to people, “Do you feel like you’re getting closer to God?” If they say no, I ask, “How can I help you draw closer to God?” I ask them to tell me how to be a witness to them. I want them to see me as a companion on their journey toward God. If evangelism is spiritual guidance, it is a pre-conversion and post-conversion journey in which I help people move towards Christlikeness. That is a better expression of evangelism than what we’ve embraced at times in the past.
G&P: Are the barriers that keep most people from faith more cultural and sociological than theological and religious?
LP: It is hard to say. Unsaved people are looking for their kind of people who are authentic Christians. There’s a study that says people decide in the first 11 minutes of attending a church if they’ll stay or not. That is a sociological barrier. Some people fail to attend church because they know they are living an ungodly life, and that’s a theological issue. I think we have to keep both sets of barriers in mind.
G&P: How do we begin to create an evangelistically-effective congregation?
LP: It is in the DNA of the Church of the Nazarene to reach people for Christ. Typically, when I ask people, “Do you want your church to reach others for Christ?” the answer is always yes. Then, when I ask, “How do you intend to do that?” there’s often silence and someone will say, “Well, our pastor tells us that we should witness.” If that’s the extent of our strategy, we can recognize the inadequacy of that.
I encourage laity to think of unchurched people they know who live within a 20-minute drive of the church. I ask, “How can you become a part of their lives and invite them into your friendship circles? How can we get beyond the walls of the church to impact people for Christ’s sake? What can the church do to meet the needs of people who are not here?” We begin to assess how God wants the church to be effective with those outside the congregation. And then, we begin to pray for each other. Most of the prayer in the New Testament about evangelism is not for the unsaved but for the ability to witness. The apostle Paul said, “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19). That’s how we need to begin, praying for each other to share our faith with integrity and a gentle boldness.
G&P: How do we get more in touch with our communities?
LP: We’re facing a time when the church is fleeing from the world. Home schools, Christian schools, and Christian businesses can be important forms of ministry, but not if they inhibit engaging the community. One way to reach the community is by asking about our relationships: “Is my barber or my hairstylist a Christian?” If so, I’ll change and find one who’s not. “Are my golf partners from my church?” If so, I’ll invite some unbelievers to join us. As individuals, we can reassess our choices. A congregation can do the same thing. I lived in one community where they were always asking for volunteers at the hospital. Churches can partner with schools and provide help with landscaping, computers, and mentoring. You can get involved in the Chamber of Commerce. These are ways we can be involved in the world. With a little creativity, you can envision many unique ways to evangelize your community.
G&P: How do you deal with religious pluralists who have issues with Christian faith?
LP: Pluralism can be a wide-open door of opportunity for Christians to share their faith, because pluralism says there are lots of ways to God, and this can include the Christian way. If the pluralist accuses a Christian of being narrow for saying Jesus is the only way to salvation, the Christian can respond by saying, “You are not allowing my position to stand among others. If you’re asking me to hold another position, you’re asking me to be a non-Christian. I’m a Christ-follower. I must follow Jesus. I won’t deny Christianity.” You have to pose the problem back to the pluralist and reinforce that they cannot ask the Christian to become someone they choose not to be.
G&P: How do we reformulate evangelism to meet a postmodern context?
LP: Postmodernity embraces truth as an inner-subjective experience. This is not unlike what Christians have practiced for years with regard to personal testimony when we share the story of how God’s grace has been at work in our lives. Postmodernity allows for “testimonial evangelism” (or story-telling) to take place. The appeal to one’s own personal and spiritual history can be validated by postmodernity.
G&P: How important is it for people to share their faith story?
LP: We live in a time where people say, “I don’t have a testimony.” That generally means they don’t have a “before and after” account of their salvation. They don’t have a Damascus road experience because we use Paul’s model of conversion as our example. But remember, we have Timothy, who sat at the feet of his mom and grandmother, and so he has a story of gradual evangelism. We all have a faith story. We all can recount the moments when the Spirit of God was at work in our lives. This provides us with a story. The Book of Acts is a wonderful account of how the Holy Spirit was at work in the lives of people. We can go back and say, “Here’s how the Spirit was at work in my life.” We need to encourage our people to look back and recognize that even in the small things, God was at work. I think local congregations should write their stories for the people that come behind them.
G&P: What are your thoughts about relational approaches to evangelism, as well as apologetics?
LP: Relationship evangelism recognizes that it is often through friendships that people come to know the Lord. But that’s always been the case. Jesus started with spiritual conversations. He only said to one person, “You must be born again,” but he had spiritual conversations with lots of people. Jesus also debated people. And so we have apologetics or intellectual evangelism. The Book of Acts shows Paul, Peter, and the rest of the disciples and early church leaders developing friendships and making contacts with unchurched people.
In friendship evangelism we can sometimes avoid talking about Jesus for fear this will endanger a relationship. If the relationship is a healthy one, I don’t think this is something we need to fear. Nor do we need to think we have to have a long-standing relationship before we can ever say anything about Jesus.
A study of the Church of the Nazarene in 1996 showed that 57% of our pastors and 34% of our laity did apologetics or intellectual evangelism, which seeks to affirm the validity of the gospel message in ways that appeal to those outside of the faith. This method probably needs to be resourced and encouraged more than it is now.
G&P: Is Sunday School still a significant place for evangelism?
LP: In 1976, when Nazarene worship attendance exceeded Sunday school attendance, we questioned if Sunday school was evangelistic. Research tells us that 70% of those who come to faith through the Church of the Nazarene indicate that Sunday school was “important” to “very important” in their decision to serve Jesus. We have looked at Sunday School primarily as a teaching ministry, but we need to understand that evangelism takes place in a culture of acceptance, and small groups like Sunday schools represent places where people experience friendships and find love. We would be well-advised to occasionally say in our small groups and Sunday school classes, “Some of you may be contemplating the idea of becoming a Christ-follower. You’re here among friends. Could we pray for you to do that today?”
G&P: You have represented our denomination in discussions on evangelism in the broader Christian community. Share about this.
LP: Since the late 1990s, the Church of the Nazarene has been active in the Mission America Coalition, which represents roughly 95 denominations and around 400 parachurch organizations. We have also been active in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), where I have served as a denominational representative. More recently, the Church of the Nazarene has joined the World Methodist Council. They have a committee that meets on world evangelism. Through a conference called The Order of the Flame, they are training hundreds of people in evangelism every year throughout the world. I’m on the standing faculty of the Order of the Flame, and it’ll be 16 years this year that this training has been taking place for Methodists, Nazarenes, and other groups. It’s a very influential and widesweeping effort to reach lost people from within our tradition.