I had what can only be described as a crisis of confidence. I looked at my bike, and looked at the road, then looked at myself, then looked at my bike again. There was definitely something in me that wanted to get on and ride, but yet.. I couldn’t quiet muster up the confidence to actually do it. When I was young, I did thousands upon thousands of miles on that old bike and truth be told, I really missed riding. On the other hand, I hadn’t ridden for a couple of years I was much older, I was unfit, tired, and several stone too big for my cycling clothes. Being a MAMIL is awkward enough; being a fat one, was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back!
I knew cycling would be good for me. I knew I would benefit from it and I missed it. However, it was easier just to walk back into the house and duck the challenge. Which I did.
That is strangely not unlike many people’s experience with evangelism. For many in church today, especially adults – evangelism is something they used to do, had some wonderful experiences in; but haven’t done any for ages, and simply lack the confidence to start again. It’s not that they don’t entirely miss it, or that they have no desire to take up the challenge, it’s more that they have become a bit out of practice, a bit unfit, and what they used to do naturally – now feels really awkward. For many of us, our faith in Jesus has become the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ in our long-term friendships. We may have mentioned it at the start of new friendships, and our church activity might be visible; but our actual faith in Jesus himself is conversationally off-limits and we’re stuck. Likewise, I know so many people, who speak fondly of university missions or children’s clubs, street work or door-to-door, or of personal witness to friends years ago; who just don’t feel ‘match-fit’ and able to get going again. A Barna Group study in 2019 showed that virtually every Christian longs to share something of their faith in Jesus with others. For many of us though, getting back on the bike is the hardest step.
I’ve observed two problems which flow from this malaise, both in myself and others. The first is a loss of confidence in the gospel itself. The second is a loss of confidence in our own calling, gifting and ability to be a witness for Christ. Let’s consider them briefly:
Research in the American context shows that most people who become Christians do so in adolescence or young adulthood. In fact, the proportions seem to drop as people get older. No doubt other belief commitments show similar patterns, as very often trajectories settled upon during formative years remain for life. It’s highly likely that the trends are broadly similar in the UK too.
These two patterns seem to feed off one another. The time investment in evangelism which many Christian people gave before the responsibilities of adult life took over; are matched by the probability that evangelism amongst our peers might become more difficult as we age with them. The consequence is that it might have been a long time since we saw someone put their faith in Jesus. It may have been a long time since we have seen someone we know well being transformed by the power of the gospel. In that context it is all too easy to tacitly accept either that God doesn’t do that anymore, or that He can only work in certain cultural contexts, and that contemporary secularism inevitably has the final word.
A similar problem arises in terms of our own usefulness. I know many people who saw friends and classmates deeply impacted by the gospel at university; but have been less fruitful in adult life, and have lost confidence not in the gospel itself – but in their own effectiveness as witnesses to it. They look back fondly at great days in the past, but lack the confidence to re-engage today.
When I trudged back into the house, leaving my bike forlornly in the shed; I felt deflated, defeated and a little bit sad. I knew what needed to happen, but simply lacked the confidence to put it into practice. The retreat from evangelism feels almost the same. I know, because I have done both.
What can we do if we find ourselves in this predicament? I have some suggestions.
The first is to embrace Psalmist-like honesty with God about where you are with this. In terms of the ‘Confidence Gap’, Psalm 126 is short and particularly helpful. You can read the whole Psalm here:
The first half of the Psalm (v1-3) involves the Psalmist looking back to great things God has done in the past. The return from exile in Babylon under Nehemiah seems to be in view here. The Psalmist renews his confidence in God by remembering great blessings poured out. Looking back, it was like a dream, when people were amazed at God’s work, and God’s people were full of joy. The second half (v4-6) strikes a very different tone. These verses are a plea for God to restore their fortunes. The talk here is of weeping, and longing. So that’s exactly where we should start if we find ourselves in the Confidence Gap.
So, we can look back and see what God has done, in our lives, and in church history; and regain some confidence. Reading the stories of people like the Wesleys or Robert Murray McCheyne or the Lewis revival of the 20th Century can help us to see what God can do. Hearing testimonies of how people became Christians is really important – we should tell our stories to each other more! Then we should turn this renewed longing to God in prayer, asking God to restore what has been lost, and to turn our sorrow in joy. Spend some time in Psalm 126.
Secondly, we should be intentional and disciplined about praying for people, and asking for the courage to take opportunities to speak to them. Spiritual breakthroughs are won in prayer firstly, and conversationally only secondarily. God can still break through into real-life situations and draw people to himself; and His method for doing that is always prayer.
Isaiah 64 is a heartfelt cry that God would act again for His people, which famously starts, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down!”. When two elderly sisters became burdened for the youth of their village who were not interested in the things of God, they started to pray, and that prayer movement ushered in what we know as The Lewis Revival. Whenever we are stuck in a rut, the escape route begins with prayer.
Thirdly, it’s important to develop a healthy sense of the sovereignty of God. God is in control of all these things and can be trusted – so even if we are struggling we don’t need to panic. The sovereignty of God, in the Bible – is not the same thing as fatalism. I knew a westerner who once crossed a busy street in Islamabad, Pakistan with a local. The local stepped out into the traffic, barely looking – and almost got killed. “Inshallah” said the local to the bemused guest. In other words, I don’t really look at the traffic, I’ll only die if Allah wills it, in which case, I’ll die anyway – so why look! However, the Biblical view of God’s sovereignty isn’t like that, as it doesn’t involve a distant unknowable God; but our Father in heaven, who uses us and our prayers in unfolding His will in the world. That means that we don’t ultimately need to be crippled by a loss of confidence, as we are not being called to change the world single-handed, but merely be faithful to our small calling. Evangelism is God’s work, and so participation is a privilege; not a chore.
When I was a student, I witnessed a campaign of harassment and intimidation between two households in the flat above mine. I was summoned to Dundee Sheriff Court to give my account of what happened. The citation which the police gave me stated two things. The first was that I was a witness, and the second was that I was required to testify. The key thing was that I was only asked to say what I saw. I wasn’t the prosecuting lawyer, just a witness. The lawyer was the one arguing the case, calling witnesses and drawing the lines of argument together to convict. We can learn to trust The Holy Spirit to take the lead in evangelism, because all we are required to do, is to speak when summoned. That’s why Paul wrote,
“5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow”.
Grasping that takes the pressure off us – enabling us to make a small start in just being witnesses; for whom simply being faithful is enough.
God also says ”Do not despise the day of small things.” We know from the history books of the Bible, and from church history, that there have been times when God has poured out amazing blessings – and other times when His work has seemed more difficult. We don’t appear to be living in days of great revival, today in this country at least. But that doesn’t mean we should ‘despise’ these days, give up, go home, quit or accept the lie that the Holy Spirit has retreated to Heaven. Rather we should be alert, watchful and prayerful. We might just be given an opportunity today to say a brief word for Jesus, and be part of chain of events which ushers the mercy and salvation of God into someone’s life. Today might be the time when an outreach event through your church could be the start of new life in Christ for someone who needs Him.
Without my wife’s encouragement I would never have got back on that bike. I was stuck in a rut, and just didn’t have the confidence to get back on and ride. On one occasion, I had even got the bike out and got it all ready, then bottled out and put it away. However, she literally stood with me, saying. “you can do this again”, as I carried my bike down our front steps to the road. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two in Luke 10, he sent them out in twos. If you are stuck in the chasm of lost-confidence in evangelism try climbing out with someone else – impossible things can seem suddenly doable when someone has their arm around your shoulder. Pray together, and look for opportunities together; the difference is remarkable.
That first bike ride was a nightmare. I was so out of shape that I almost gave up within a mile of my house. I live in an especially hilly area where the roads climb up from the river in all directions. At the top of the first climb I all but came off the bike, my head hurt and I felt sick. It was really uncomfortable. And embarrassing. Out with a neighbour later that week, the climb was slightly easier, and every ride hurt less than the last. Last Saturday, I did a 100mile ride around mountain Perthshire. Spinning along the South Loch Tay Road, with the sun shining on the Munros over the loch, it was utterly glorious. And I wondered why it had taken me so long to get going again.
May God renew our confidence in Him, and revitalise us, and send us out with such joy and conviction that we wonder why on earth it took us so long to get going!