One evening several years ago, a Maryville, Tenn., college student named George leaped out of bed, switched on his light, and shouted to his roommate, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Awakened from his sleep, the roommate asked, “What have you got, George?”
George replied, “Everyone in the U.S. has a chance to hear the Gospel—but not in Mexico. We should go there this summer and distribute tracts. How about it?” Stumbling over his words, the roommate said, “Well, George, I don’t know. I’d have to pray about it.”
“Okay, let’s pray,” said George as he knelt beside his bed. A couple of minutes later, George lifted his head and asked, “So, are you ready to go now?” The roommate was reluctant to finalize a commitment to go so far, so soon. George muttered, “It takes some people so long to decide to do anything!” Years later, George Verwer, this evangelistic college student, became the founder of Operation Mobilization.
Like Verwer’s roommate, believers in Jesus Christ often experience obstacles to the personal discipline of evangelism. Many of these obstacles arise from issues related to fear. Consider the following obstacles to evangelism and some ways you can overcome them.
1. Fear of the unknown impedes believers’ evangelism by emphasizing unfamiliar experiences. Some believers do not evangelize because they do not know what to expect if they were to share the Gospel with others. Perhaps they are unsure who might be inside the houses they are to visit. Maybe they are uncertain about the reaction they will receive from those sitting nearby at the local coffee shop or from unbelieving friends.
Regarding the fear of the unknown, every believer has a choice—either allow the unknown to remain mysterious by not evangelizing, or make known the unknown by evangelizing. A believer will never know what will or will not happen in a particular witnessing situation if s/he does not offer others a clear and complete witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection and call for a commitment. Of all the possible responses others can offer to believers who share the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, more than likely, they will either want to hear more on the matter or politely decline the conversation.
2. Fear for safety hinders some believers from evangelizing in an effort toward self-preservation. In an environment where reports of Christians’ falling under attack for preaching the Gospel around the globe become more and more normative, some believers naturally fear for their own safety. This news should come as no surprise to believers who follow a Savior who was despised and rejected by men to the point of death. In fact, when Jesus warned His followers of the dangers they would endure for His name’s sake, He didn’t excuse them from evangelizing for the sake of safety. Rather, he charged them that “the Gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (cf. Mk 13:9–13, NKJV).
Although danger is not out of the realm of possibility, most believers in America need not fear for their safety while sharing the Gospel in their own communities. Of course, all believers should exercise wisdom when witnessing (i.e., not trespassing on property with clearly marked “No Trespassing” signage; not arguing with someone who disagrees with Gospel premises; etc.). In fact, those who evangelize on a consistent basis generally experience few, if any, dangerous encounters when evangelizing.
3. The fear of rejection prevents believers from evangelizing by shifting attention from Jesus to themselves. Generally speaking, most people want to be accepted by others. Some believers don’t evangelize for fear that those with whom they share the Gospel will reject them when they call for decisions.
Those who battle the fear of rejection should remind themselves of the words of Jesus when He said, “But whoever denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:33, NKJV). When evangelizing, believers must first convey the message that only Jesus Christ can reconcile men and women to God through his death and resurrection, and then call their listeners to a commitment of believing in Jesus alone for salvation and repenting of their sins. After the Gospel is clearly communicated, any rejection on the part of the evangelized is much more serious than whether or not the personal evangelist has been denied. Any denial to the clearly communicated message of the Gospel is a denial of Jesus Christ Himself. On a related note, not every time a believer evangelizes can s/he be guaranteed that someone will accept Christ and His free gift of forgiveness, but a believer can be guaranteed that no one will ever accept Christ and His free gift of forgiveness if s/he never evangelizes.
4. The fear of failure obstructs believers from sharing the Gospel by causing them to adopt a faulty understanding of success. Many believers accept the false premise that evangelism is successful only if someone makes a profession of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. This misunderstanding, if accepted by believers, can prove devastating.
While no one will deny that a profession of faith brings great joy, encouragement and affirmation to a personal evangelist, these results must never be equated with success. If the decisions of those who are evangelized rested solely on the abilities of believers, then perhaps professions of faith, or the lack thereof, could be categorized in terms of success or failure. However, the decisions of those who are evangelized rest with them and the work of the Holy Spirit. Believers’ success and failure in terms of evangelism is measured by their obedience or disobedience to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
5. An absence of the fear of God strips believers of a healthy motivation to evangelize the lost. To this point in the discussion, believers have been encouraged to shun fear in terms of obstacles to evangelism. However, all believers must embrace the fear of God, especially in terms of their witness for Christ.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Knowing therefore the terror [fear] of the Lord, we persuade men. . . . Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (1 Cor 5:11, 20, NKJV). In his commentary on 2 Corinthians in the New American Commentary series, David Garland explains that terror (e.g., fear) here refers to “a religious consciousness, a reverential awe of God, that directs the way one lives” (269–270). Believers’ consistently living devoid of the fear of God, at best, will end in forfeiture of heavenly rewards and, at worst, will generate apathy for the lost.
Aware of the day he would appear before the bema seat of Christ (1 Cor 5:10), Paul seeks to persuade, implore, and plead with others to be reconciled to God by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Believers must fear God because they, like Paul, will one day stand before the bema seat of our Lord and give account for what they have and have not done during their lives, which includes the extent of their faithfulness in evangelism. Christ’s judgment at the bema seat will result either in receiving or in forfeiting heavenly, eternal rewards.
Much more urgent than what heavenly rewards believers will or will not receive, the fear of God reminds personal evangelists of His impending wrath and judgment upon unbelievers. While believers will appear before the bema seat of Christ, all unbelievers will appear before the Great White Throne to be judged and condemned (Rev 20:11–15). Those who appear at this judgment will be punished eternally in hell because they have neglected to respond in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ. Believers must embrace the fear of God and evangelize in order to avoid an uncompassionate apathy for the final state of the lost.
Doubtless, all believers at some time or another face one or more of these fear-related obstacles to evangelism. The two primary and greatest catalysts to overcome fear-related obstacles to one’s personal practice of evangelism include the convicting power of the Word of God and the empowering ability of the Holy Spirit. As you read the Bible for conviction and pray for divine empowerment in order to conquer obstacles in evangelism, consider identifying which of the fear-related obstacles threaten your evangelistic faithfulness and applying the particular suggestions offered above that address them.
George Verwer was known to encourage others to evangelize with the impassioned plea, “We are God’s chosen people, not his frozen people, so let’s pray for defrost!” May fear-related obstacles no longer freeze beautiful feet in their tracks from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ for salvation.