G&P: YOU’RE ONE OF THE GUESTS AT OUR M19 CONFERENCE IN FEBRUARY. CAN YOU GIVE US A PREVIEW OF WHAT YOU’LL BE SPEAKING ABOUT?
ES : I want to encourage Nazarene believers to say “yes” like Isaiah did. He said, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” So, I’ll be focusing on what that looks like in regard to evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization.
G&P: CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR OWN JOURNEY?
ES : I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, and I never got over that fact, so part of what really consumes my passion is that men and women might hear and respond to the good news of the gospel. Early on, I expressed that passion through planting churches. I planted my first church in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, among the urban core. I was able to plant several churches that focused upon evangelism and multiplication. A common thread throughout most of the books I’ve written has been becoming effective at reaching people and engaging people for the gospel. Two years ago, I took the role here at the Billy Graham Center so I could spend the next season of my ministry encouraging Christians to be more effective at sharing the gospel.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE CURRENT STATE OF EVANGELISM IN THE USA/CANADA?
ES : I think that most Christians love evangelism as long as somebody else is doing it. The thing we often forget is that we are all called to share the gospel. There’s no mention of a “gift” of evangelism in the Bible, though everyone assumes there is.
There’s the evangelist who’s gifted, but the evangelist’s job, according to Ephesians 4, is to equip God’s people. So, all of us have a responsibility to share the gospel. Many Christians have abdicated that role to pastors locally and to missionaries globally, when really, we are all called to share the gospel.
G&P: HOW CAN PASTORS HELP CHURCHES RECAPTURE THAT ZEAL?
ES : The writer of Hebrews says, “Provoke one another to love and good deeds.” That’s part of what I hope to do at M19. I hope to provoke those who are there toward love and good deeds through evangelism and sharing the love of Jesus in a broken and hurting world.
Part of the pastor’s job is to provoke their people in this way. I think ultimately one way that we love a lost world is to share the good news of the gospel.
G&P: WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE FOR A PASTOR TO PROVOKE PEOPLE TO BE EVANGELISTIC?
ES : I think it’s an equipping role. How do pastors equip people? You can’t lead what you won’t live. Pastors need to be evangelistic if they want evangelistic churches. Then, they can lead their congregations through seasons of training in evangelism. There are a variety of ways to do that, but basically pastors help people live out the mission of Christ. Jesus said in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” If that’s the case, and He has sent us on mission, then our role is to say “yes” to Him and to go and tell the good news of the gospel.
G&P: HOW HAVE APPROACHES CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
ES : The “how” of evangelism is in many ways determined by the who, when, and where of culture. A lot of Nazarenes had bus ministries in the ’70s. My guess is that few are using bus ministry today. The how has changed, but the call and the focus have not. We adapt our creativity, so that we can continually join the mission of Christ.
G&P: HOW CAN WE ADAPT OUR METHODS AS CULTURE CHANGES?
ES : One of the things you see in the New Testament is that Paul sets the model of evangelism. He built bridges of communication across cultures. He quoted Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and poets; at Lystra he talked about nature and preached the gospel from nature. At the Areopagus or Mars Hill, he talked about Jewish history. Paul looked for bridges across which the communication of the gospel could travel. So I think that’s the call that we have. The bridges have changed, but the intent and the strategy has not.
G&P: HOW IMPORTANT IS CREATIVITY IN THE OUTREACH?
ES : I think creativity is one of those bridges. For instance, radio was a remarkable, creative way decades ago. Bus ministry was a creative way. I think there’s probably hundreds of creative ways to share the gospel, and every day I think people are thinking of new ones.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME EFFECTIVE WAYS OF OUTREACH YOU HAVE WITNESSED?
ES : I love the idea that some people have really intentionally served others. I know some churches put coins in all the laundry mats and have paid for everyone’s laundry. Or, they paid people’s parking meters and left a little card to say why, or they invited people to special events and in doing so shared the gospel there. I know of some people who had a big game dinner and shared the gospel with a group of men that attended this men’s big game dinner. There are many ways across ages and cultural groups.
G&P: DO WE KNOW HOW EFFECTIVE ANY OF THESE CREATIVE APPROACHES ARE?
ES : Well, we don’t. We can do good deeds and not have evangelistic intent. But I think when you have good deeds and gospel proclamation, those things go beautifully together. There’s a quote floating around attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words.” But there are two problems with it. Number one, he never said it. And number two, it’s really bad theology. We need to preach the gospel using words. Our deeds often give us permission to say the words. Ultimately, I believe those two things together are a gospel opportunity.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU THINK SUCCESSFUL EVANGELISM LOOKS LIKE TODAY?
ES : I think successful evangelism today looks like it looked 2,000 years ago. Men and women respond to the gospel by grace and through faith. My focus is the goal. I think the tools to get there change. Justin Martyr’s approach in the second century was very different than that of traveling preachers in the ’50s. And their approach was different than, say, missional incarnational church planters who are engaging arts communities in Indianapolis. This is normal and necessary.
G&P: HOW CAN A PASTOR OR A CHURCH MEASURE WHETHER OR NOT THEY’RE BEING EFFECTIVE? IS IT JUST “THE NUMBERS,” OR IS THERE MORE?
ES : We do want to count commitments to Christ and baptisms, but I think, ultimately, it’s more than just that. It’s not just nickels, noses, and numbers. How many people are living on mission in their context? How many people are intentionally building relational bridges to people who don’t know Jesus? I think all those things play into that. At the end of the day, I still want to know how many people have responded to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s still really important to me.
G&P: DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS ON THE FUTURE OF EVANGELISM, HOW METHODS OR PERSPECTIVES MAY CHANGE?
ES : It’s harder now to share our faith, and it’s going to get harder. Most of our evangelism is based upon evangelizing people who are nominal Christians. Most people that most Nazarenes share the gospel with already think they’re Christians, and it’s almost like our job is to convince them they’re not so that they can be! Most polls say that around 75 percent of Americans say they’re Christians. Yet only about a quarter of Americans actually plan their lives around their religious faith.
That means about half of Americans are nominal Christians. That’s where most of our evangelism has been. But here’s the challenge: Every year the number of Americans who identify as Christians decreased by about 1 percent, and 1 percent more identify as “none of the above,” or, the Nones. So, we need to prepare ourselves for an evangelistic future where we’re not evangelizing nominal Christians to bring them to understand the deeper faith, but we’re evangelizing truly secular people who don’t know Christ and are one, two, or three generations away from any religious memory in their family.
G&P: WHO ARE THE “NONES”?
ES : The highest percentage of Nones are younger, but it spreads across the whole spectrum. To be fair, that’s always been the case. You’ll notice during the ’70s, the younger generation was the most secular. People become more religious as they age, according to research, but it’s a little tricky. Among college students, one out of three is actually intentionally or openly secular, and that’s a huge shift from prior generations.
G&P: IS THE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS INCREASING, OR IS THAT JUST A PERCEPTION?
ES : It is getting more difficult. People are starting farther away from faith in the U.S. and in Canada. The strongest life-threatening kind of persecution is more prevalent outside of the US and Canada. Things like the “War on Christmas,” or a clerk saying, “Happy Holidays” is really not persecution. I don’t think it’s the clerk at Walmart’s job to tell people about Jesus. I think it’s my job and your job to tell people about Jesus.
We certainly face increasing pressure to not mention religion or share our faith in the culture of the U.S. and Canada, and this is likely at least partly due to the rise in secularism.
G&P: THE STANDARD HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN TO NOT TALK ABOUT POLITICS, RELIGION, OR SEX IN POLITE SOCIETY. WE DEFINITELY TALK ABOUT SEX AND POLITICS, BUT ARE WE STILL MORE RELUCTANT TO TALK ABOUT RELIGION?
ES : Isn’t that ironic? What has emerged is what I call the “Oprah-fication” of American spirituality, in which you can believe whatever you want as long as it makes you happy and you don’t try to convince anybody else. But, we Christians are part of a missionary faith.
The founder of our faith told us to go and make disciples of all nations. Jesus’ last words should be our first priority. The call we have, to do what Jesus said, doesn’t fit as well in our world. We’re supposed to live and let live, everyone find their own spiritual way, their own path, and as long as we’re happy and we’re not hurting anybody else, it’s fine. But at the end of the day that’s not really what we as Christians believe. We believe that men and women need to hear the good news of the gospel.